Saturday, September 17, 2011

Springfield Race Riots 1908

Springfield, Illinois monument to the 1908 race riots.

From the Wall Street Journal, "The Tangled Racial Roots of the Illinois Capital: Lincoln's Home of Springfield, an Early Haven for African-Americans, Erupted in Riots That It Has Only Recently Revisited," by Douglas A. Blackmon, on 20 January 2009: SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- In a modest home on a street a few miles from the spot where Barack Obama began his bid to become the first black U.S. president, 85-year-old Charles Werner keeps tucked away a cardboard box of relics from his grandfather's tenure as county sheriff here a hundred years ago.

Among the old photographs and worn shackles is the brass casing of a rifle shell, fashioned into a lapel pin and engraved with the sheriff's name, the date of Aug. 14, 1908, and the words "Springfield Race War."

It was on that day that Springfield erupted in racial violence. For two days, thousands of white residents of a city that had been a key stop on the Underground Railroad and the hometown of Abraham Lincoln rampaged through the streets.

Enflamed after the arrest of two black men -- one for the murder of a white man and another for the alleged rape of a white woman -- they looted and destroyed the black business district, burned dozens of black-owned homes and attacked nearly every black man they encountered. Two African-American men with no connection to the alleged crimes were lynched. Stunned that such an event could have occurred in Springfield, a group of early civil-rights leaders organized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People the following year.

The election of the nation's first African-American president has stirred some influential intellectuals -- black and white -- to argue that Mr. Obama's inauguration marks the moment when blacks in the U.S. should begin abandoning past grievances for slavery, discrimination and racial violence. On the campaign trail, even Mr. Obama and his aides often avoided extended discussion of race. They made it clear he didn't wish to be perceived simply as the first black major party candidate for the White House.

"It is simply no longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and disenfranchisement, a curse and a condemnation, a destiny based on color," wrote Charles Johnson, a National Book Award-winning English professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
But Springfield has done precisely the opposite and revisited its past. After decades of mostly silence about 1908, thousands of city residents over the past year have banded together to mark the centennial of the most painful event in town history.

"We have to acknowledge when wrongs have been committed and do what we can to right those wrongs," said Kathryn Harris, a librarian at Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the allure of Lincoln's association and jobs in bustling coal mines and factories made Springfield a magnet for African-Americans fleeing deepening racial oppression across the Southern states. By 1900, Springfield had the highest percentage of black residents of any city in Illinois.

But the influx also stirred racial resentments among whites. On Aug. 14, 1908, after a white woman in Springfield claimed to have been raped by a black man, large crowds gathered outside the county jail, intent on lynching the man accused of the rape and another black prisoner charged with killing a local white man, according to historical accounts. The woman later admitted her allegation of rape was fabricated.

Without the crowd realizing what was happening, the sheriff -- Mr. Werner's grandfather, also named Charles Werner -- spirited the defendants to safety. After the mob learned the African-American prisoners were gone, thousands of whites swirled through the city for two days, looting and shooting within sight of the old state capitol building where Lincoln proclaimed 50 years earlier that "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

By the time 4,000 state militiamen re-established order, most of the black residential areas of the city were razed. More than 40 houses were burned. The African-American business district was gutted. A black barber was lynched when he tried to fight off attackers. Five white men had been killed in stampedes, unintentional shootings or militia gunfire.

The last person to die was an elderly black man named William Donnegan. He had once been a shoe maker and was reputed to have had a passing acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln. By 1908, he was one of the city's most prominent and prosperous African-Americans, with real-estate holdings, a large home and a white wife. On the second day of the attacks, a mob dragged him from his home, cut his throat and hung him from a tree.

Lincoln Family Home in Springfield, Illinois

The black community in Springfield struggled to recover. "Everyone was aware of it. But no one spoke of it," said Rudy Davenport, a longtime local NAACP leader. "It was sort of like...just silence."

According to many African-Americans, Springfield as late as the 1960s was still following racial practices similar to the South, including restrictions on where blacks could eat in restaurants, sit in theaters or use the city swimming pool. In the late 1980s, Mr. Davenport and others successfully sued to force greater representation of African-American voters in local elections. In recent years, black leaders pushed for more minority police officers and firemen. The city responded by adding special recruiters and changing its hiring process.

Abraham Lincoln's presidential library. Springfield, Illionis

As the 100th anniversary of the riot approached in 2007, many black residents began pushing for an event to mark the centennial. The mayor, Timothy J. Davlin, who is white, appointed a commission to coordinate a commemoration. "We all know our rich history here," Mr. Davlin said this month. "And it's not all pretty. But it's part of our history whether you like it or not."

Not everyone in Springfield was certain that was a good idea. Even some prominent black pastors had reservations about stirring up difficult memories, according to Rev. Wesley McNeese, pastor of New Mission Church of God.

Stories about the events in the local State Journal-Register attracted hostile commentary. One posting on the paper's Web site called the plans a "pathetic exercise in digging up the past." Another wrote that the commemoration "is just stirring up trouble and tension between groups of citizens. This happened 100 years ago!"

The backbone of the remembrance became a series of multiracial religious gatherings held at various churches each month. Dubbed "solemn assemblies," the services ended with prayer sessions at one of the riot sites.

A few minutes before the first assembly last spring, hardly any participants had arrived. Beverly Peters, one of the key organizers, worried that the plan might be a bust. At the last minute, several hundred Springfield residents showed up. As the year progressed, larger crowds appeared.
Illinois State Map

At the same time, other organizations began sponsoring additional events. Local Springfield College-Benedictine University hosted speeches and forums by historians and authors. The city renamed a stretch of streets through the riot area Reconciliation Way. On the anniversary of the start of the riot, a local civic club held a mock retrial of the man tried but acquitted of the murder in 1908.

When the final church service convened, Mayor Davlin surprised the crowd by issuing a formal apology to the African-American residents of the city for the 1908 riot. In early February, a $300,000 state-funded statue showing scenes of the riot will be unveiled.

Now that the commemoration is largely over, Springfield residents are debating what it accomplished. The answers aren't clear. Mayor Davlin says an honest accounting of the riot has helped ease the way for efforts to increase the number of black police officers and improve educational opportunities. He also says the commemorative markers and interest in the race riot helped set the stage for this year's bicentennial celebration of Lincoln's birth in 1809 -- and were good for tourism.

Mr. Davenport hopes the remembrance process will make it more likely that efforts to tackle issues facing African-Americans, such as lower pay, crime and academic performance in schools, will be viewed as problems facing the city -- not just African-Americans.

Charles Werner, the grandson of the sheriff, says he thinks the long discussion may finally put the riot to rest. "I think it's going to be dropped," he said. "Maybe it will come back up again in another 100 years." (source: Wall Street Journal, Douglas Blackmon)

Springfield Race Riots 1908

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