LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. All this month we're examining the effect race has on politics. Many of you have logged on to our Web site to let us know how race will influence your vote in the upcoming election. Later, two of our listeners will share their experiences. But first we remember a tragic event that happened 100 years ago in Springfield, Illinois. On August 14, 1908, a group of white people formed a violent mob. It erupted into riots that killed seven people, destroyed dozens of black-owned homes and businesses, and ran most of the city's black population out of town. The Springfield race riots shook the state capital that is well-known as the home of President Abraham Lincoln.
Dr. ROBERTA SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE (Professor of History, Washington and Lee University): Liberals in the North were so outraged by the symbolism of this violence occurring in Lincoln's hometown that they 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, and the NAACP was formally organized less than a year after that.
HANSEN: That's Roberta Senechal de la Roche. She's a professor of history at Washington and Lee University. She says the riots were set off by two incidents. The first was the alleged murder of a white man by a black man. The second was a white woman's accusation that a black man had raped her.
Dr. SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE: The crowd formed at the downtown jail demanding that the county sheriff hand over the two black suspects. They clearly wanted to mete out lethal justice there on the spot.
HANSEN: Local authorities decided to move the suspects so they wouldn't get lynched. That action angered the mob.
Dr. SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE: At least as many as 500, possibly as many as 1,000 people went then to the black business district and systematically destroyed and looted virtually every black business downtown.
HANSEN: The rioting went on for two days. Five white men and two black men were killed in the violence. One of the black victims was 80-year-old William Donnegan, a retired shoemaker and real estate dealer. Members of the mob beat him with bricks, slashed his throat with a razor, and finally put a rope around his neck and tied him to a tree.
Dr. SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE: These largely working-class rioters were expressing resentment over visible black success and influence in the community.
HANSEN: Some of the perpetrators were indicted, something like a 107 indictments. About 80 people were charged.
Dr. SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE: Roughly, roughly.
HANSEN: But there was only one conviction.
Dr. SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE: Well, there were two actually, but they were very minor. One got off with a minor property charge, and I think he had to pay a five-dollar fine and got 30 days in jail. And then there was a young teenager sent to a reformatory for six months. But considering how many indictments there were and the fact that so many people saw the rioters, on the face of it, it looks remarkable. From the perspective of many Springfield residents who were white, justice was not done in the end.
HANSEN: The woman who claimed that she had been assaulted later recanted her claim, and she said she said what she said to cover up an affair.
Dr. SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE: You know, we don't know for certain. Something funny was going on there, probably an affair. One of the sad things looking back is that the white press that had helped so much to fan the flames of anger had virtually nothing to say by way of shock or apology, or anything.
HANSEN: Roberta Senechal De La Roche teaches history at Washington and Lee University. Her book about the Springfield race riots of 1908, "In Lincoln's Shadow," was recently re-released to commemorate the event. Thanks so much.
Dr. SENECHAL DE LA ROCHE: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
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