Every year on July 2, the extended family of 67-year-old Dhati Kennedy gathers on the banks of the Mississippi River to pray, sing and place a memorial wreath in the muddy waters.
“My father’s people came up from the South looking for a better life,” Kennedy told Toward Freedom. “But the perceived advancement of Black people at that time was often met with violence—and state sanctioned violence.”
About 60 family members clad in white join Kennedy every year to honor their grandfather, who died a hero defending the family from a pogrom waged by thousands of white people who swarmed Black neighborhoods on that day in 1917 in East Saint Louis, a riverfront city in Illinois. They also mourn and celebrate their grandmother, who helped pilot the family’s makeshift raft across the river to the larger city of Saint Louis in Missouri. This feat came after police closed the Eads Bridge, in what has been viewed as a way to prevent East Saint Louis’ Black residents from escaping. His grandmother was a widow for just a few weeks, though, before dying of pneumonia.
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