The Day Lincoln's Hometown Erupted In Racial Hate

Black riot victims view the remains of their burned homes. i i

hide captionBlack residents view the remains of their burned homes after rioting in Springfield, Ill. At least 40 families were displaced.

Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
Black riot victims view the remains of their burned homes.

Black residents view the remains of their burned homes after rioting in Springfield, Ill. At least 40 families were displaced.

Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
Troops guard smoldering ruins of black homes on East Madison Street. i i

hide captionTroops guard the smoldering ruins of black homes on East Madison Street. By the second day of rioting, nearly 3,000 state militia had amassed.

Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
Troops guard smoldering ruins of black homes on East Madison Street.

Troops guard the smoldering ruins of black homes on East Madison Street. By the second day of rioting, nearly 3,000 state militia had amassed.

Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

A century ago this week, the normally placid town of Springfield, Ill., the hometown of President Abraham Lincoln, erupted in a two-day spasm of racial violence and mayhem that still has the power to shock today.

Goaded by two alleged attacks by black men on whites, a mob of white residents killed two black men, destroyed dozens of black-owned businesses and ran most of the city's black population out of town on Aug. 14, 1908. At least four whites also died during the rioting.

Roberta Senechal de la Roche, professor of history at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., tells host Liane Hansen that, "White Northerners had a rather complacent and self-satisfied attitude that anti-black prejudice and anti-black violence in particular was largely a Southern problem. ... And one of the really shocking things about the well-publicized Springfield race riot — and its association with Abraham Lincoln — was that the North had a race problem."

After allegations that a black man had murdered a white homeowner and that another black man had raped a white woman, a crowd massed at the jail where two black suspects were being held and demanded the county sheriff hand them over.

"They clearly wanted to mete out lethal justice there on the spot," says Senechal de la Roche, who has written a book on the riots titled In Lincoln's Shadow.

Officials managed to sneak the two black suspects out of town, and the crowd then went on a rampage that began blocks from Lincoln's family home.

As many as 1,000 people marched to the black business district and destroyed and looted virtually every black business downtown. The crowd moved to a nearby, very large, working-class and poor African-American neighborhood, where most blacks had either hidden themselves or left town.

The white mob "went from one end to the other looting homes, damaging homes and ultimately setting them on fire. By the time they were through, they'd displaced at least 40 families," Senechal de la Roche says. The state militia arrived and found the mob preparing to lynch a black barber.

On the second day of rioting, the rioters began targeting high-status African-Americans. The mob's first target was an 80-year-old retired cobbler and real estate dealer named William Donnegan. An excerpt from In Lincoln's Shadow describes the crowd's horrific actions:

The old man was dragged outside to the front yard and beaten with bricks torn up from the sidewalk. One rioter produced a razor and cut Donnegan's throat. Dragging the dying man to the street, the rioters tied a small cotton clothesline around his neck and tried to hoist him to the limb of a small maple tree in front of the school across the street. When the militia and police arrived, most of the crowd had already fled, and the authorities could do nothing but cut William Donnegan down and carry him off.

Senechal de la Roche says Springfield residents resorted to this level of violence to avenge the two alleged victims and, because the "largely working-class rioters were expressing resentment over visible black success and influence in the community."

Although about 80 people were charged in the wake of the riot, she says, only two people were convicted: One person had to pay a $5 fine and got 30 days in jail, and a teenager was sent to a reformatory for six months. Interestingly, the woman who told police she had been raped later recanted her claim, and there were rumors that she made up the allegation to hide an extramarital affair.

"From the perspective of many Springfield residents who were white, justice was not done in the end," Senechal de la Roche says.

The 1908 riot has left an enduring legacy — it was the catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Liberals in the North were so outraged by the symbolism of this violence occurring in Lincoln's hometown that they got together, called a series of meetings and announced their intent on Lincoln's birthday in 1909 to form a new organization whose prime initial goal would be to fight anti-black violence," Senechal de la Roche says. "And the NAACP was formally organized less than a year after that."

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