Springfield, Ill., Marks Centenary Of Riots

Springfield, Ill., commemorates the centenary of the Aug. 14-15 race riot of 1908. A white mob torched dozens of black-owned businesses and homes over two days of rioting. Two black men were killed and seven people died during the rioting.

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The narrative of race in America returns again and again to one Midwestern city: Springfield, Illinois. It's the adopted hometown of Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama announced his run for the presidency there. But it's also lesser known for a horrible episode from 100 years ago: a race riot in 1908 that left several people dead and gave rise to the NAACP. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: I'm standing at the intersection of Seventh and Jefferson in the historic business district of Springfield, not far from Abraham Lincoln's home.

Ms. KATHERINE HARRIS (Head Librarian, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library): This is the first marker, site of the old county jail.

CORLEY: Katherine Harris, the head librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, is standing next to one of several markers in the area that tell the story of the 1908 riot, tracing its path of destruction and violence.

Ms. HARRIS: What precipitated the riot really had its genesis before. A white engineer had been murdered. His name was Clergy Ballard.

CORLEY: That was in July, and Joe James, the black man accused of killing Ballard, was in the county jail awaiting trial. In August, things got more tense when another black man was jailed after a white woman claimed he raped her. A large crowd of whites wanted to take matters into their own hands, and on August 14th, they gathered at the jail. The sheriff, fearful of violence, secretly took the two prisoners to another jail about 60 miles away.

Ms. HARRIS: When the people discovered that they had been duped, all hell broke loose.

CORLEY: In 1908, about 2,500 African-Americans lived in Springfield, about 5 percent of the town's population. With the prisoners gone, the mob turned its fury on areas where blacks lived and worked. Homes were torched, black-owned businesses ravaged. Many blacks fled. Others fought back, and Scott Burton, an African-American barber who stayed behind to protect his home, was lynched.

Ms. HARRIS: What was distressing, even more so, about being lynched was they mutilated his body - shot it, beat it. It must have been just an awful sight.

CORLEY: By the next day, the mob had grown in size. The National Guard was dispatched. Even so, the mob killed another man. William Donnegan was an elderly black shoemaker who lived with his white wife. At least seven people died in all, including a black infant from exposure, and several white men who were killed by gunshots. Hundreds were injured, and damage in the city totaled - by today's standards - nearly $3 million.

Mr. KENNETH PAGE (Director, NAACP of Springfield, Illinois): You know, the riots, it was not uncommon for them to happen, but it happened in Lincoln's hometown. And that's what really caught people off guard, because this has always been a safe place for blacks, was Springfield. So it actually wasn't at that time.

CORLEY: Kenneth Page is the head of the NAACP in Springfield, and it was the riot, he says, which sparked the creation of the civil rights organization, after journalist William English Walling asked in 1908 who would come to the aid of African-Americans under siege. Nelson Rivers, the national chief of the NAACP's field operations, says social activist Mary White Ovington and two others met in New York to discuss solutions. And from that small meeting, the NAACP would grow to play a role in nearly every major civil rights battle in the country.

Mr. NELSON RIVERS (National Chief, Field Operations, NAACP): And who would have thought that an organization that never had a $50 million budget, never had a million members and never had to resort to violence has been able to persevere and change America the way it has? And so Springfield reminds us that just because you lose or because something tragic happened does not have to define your future.

CORLEY: Now Springfield is recognizing the eruption that scarred the city 100 years ago, and is urging the world to do so, too.

Mayor TIMOTHY DAVLIN (Springfield, Illinois): This was part of our history, and we're not running away from it.

CORLEY: Springfield's Mayor Timothy Davlin has issued a formal apology for the days of terror that took place in Springfield.

Mayor DAVLIN: It's not going to make things right after a hundred years. I think it's just - it is the right thing to do.

CORLEY: Events commemorating the riot continue in Springfield, and a statue depicting the devastation of the town will sit directly across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Joe James, the man accused of killing the white railroad engineer in 1908, was executed. The prisoner who had been charged with rape was released from jail after his accuser admitted she lied. More than 100 indictments for rioting, arson, larceny and murder were issued, but there was only one conviction - a man who stole a military saber was found guilty of petty larceny.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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The Day Lincoln's Hometown Erupted In Racial Hate

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

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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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

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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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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