Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908

A Storm in Springfield

We’ve been on something of a Vachel Lindsay kick this week, but I’m not ready to shift gears just yet.

Let’s take a step back this morning to Springfield, Illinois in August 1908. That’s right, a full 99 years after Lincoln’s birth and 43 years after his assassination.

Twenty-eight-year-old Vachel Lindsay was living with parents in their home across the street from the governor’s mansion when he witnessed one of the most horrific scenes in Springfield history.

Two black men had been arrested a little more than a month apart. One was accused of killing a white man with a straight razor, while the other was accused of raping a white woman.

An angry mob gathered in downtown Springfield on August 14. They had read the newspaper reports and heard the rumors. They had no desire to wait for the judicial process to play out. They wanted the sheriff to hand the criminals over. Justice would be swift.

The sheriff refused. In a daring act, he borrowed an automobile from Harry Loper, a local restaurant owner, and shuttled the prisoners 60 miles to the north to Bloomington.

When news of the transfer filtered through the mob, they did not disperse; instead, their anger grew more intense.

The mob began by trashing Loper’s restaurant. They quickly moved toward the Levee, an area of Springfield where black-owned businesses thrived, and began destroying anything in their path. From there, they moved onto the Badlands, an area where dozens of black families lived.

Scott Burton, a black barber, tried to defend his shop. Not only did the mob burn his barber shop, but they murdered him and hung his body from a tree; William Donnegan, an 84 year old black man married to a white woman, met a similar fate.

"Abe Lincoln brought them to Springfield," shouted someone in the mob, "and we will run them out!"

It took 4,000 militiamen two days to restore order. When it was over, 40 homes and 24 business were destroyed; at least six people were dead, two black men and four whites. Though there were 107 indictments issued against members of the white mob, only one man was convicted. His crime? He stole a soldier's sword.

What about the crimes that sparked the riot in the first place? The black man who was accused of murdering a white man was found guilty; however, the white woman who accused another black man of raping her admitted she had indeed made the story up.

The horrific Springfield Race Riot led to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, is often cited as the birth of the NAACP.

What was Vachel Lindsay’s response to the most horrific event in Springfield history?

Instead of running away from the event, the young poet confronted it.

He began by delivering a series of lectures at the local YMCA. His talks not only celebrated diversity, but they highlighted Springfield’s unique distinction as the adopted home of America’s Great Emancipator.

For the rest of his all too brief life, Lindsay used both Springfield and Lincoln as reoccuring images in his brilliant paintings, poetry, and prose.

You can read more about the ways in which these images reappear throughout Lindsay’s art in this insightful post by Larry Stevens.

If you want to learn more about the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, I have a few recommendations.

There is a full-length book on the subject by Roberta Senechal called Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 (Urbana: university of Illinois Press, 1990). The book is quite good.

Senechal has also contributed a brief narrative, which you can view online, here. The site also features several very innovative lesson plans, complete with assignments.

I also encourage you to check out the oral history collection at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Their archive features 30 oral histories that deal with the race riot. You can access the archive online, by clicking here. Click on the PDF icon to read the transcripts.

Finally, I am happy to promote the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908. It begins in June and looks first-rate. Here is the description from their site:

Upcoming at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in June is Something So Horrible: Springfield Race Riot of 1908. Gathering photographs, news accounts, oral histories, artifacts and other materials, the library will present an exhibition exploring Springfield’s most violent racial confrontation. In the one hundred years since the riot occurred, the historical record has been clouded, reshaped, denied, or forgotten. The purpose of the exhibition is to tell the story of the riot clearly so that the public will know what happened and begin to understand why it happened.

Within hours of a reported rape of a White woman by a Black man, a mob of thousands took control of Springfield. In the violence that held sway in the city for two days, two Black men were lynched, four White men were killed, scores of people were injured, and extensive property was damaged before 4000 state militiamen intervened.

Something So Horrible: Springfield Race Riot of 1908 will illustrate how racism and political corruption undermined law and order and set the stage for mob rule. The exhibit will also show how an event of one hundred years ago lives in both the historical record of the past and the racial divisions that continue to confound us.

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