The Springfield Race Riot occurred between 14 and 16 August 1908. It was a pivotal moment in American history, serving as a catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and shaping the future of the civil rights movement in the United States. As a city rich in African American history, Springfield, Illinois, witnessed a tragic event that exposed the deep-rooted racism in the South and the North.
Prelude to the riot
Around 14 August, the white population of Springfield, Illinois, reacted hastily to reports of two separate instances in which white women were assaulted by black men. These incidents happened within hours of each other and ignited the flames of racial tension in the city. Springfield police arrested two African American men, Joe James, a transient, and George Richardson, a local factory worker, in connection with the crimes.
Mob formation and demands
As news of the arrests spread, a mob of around 5,000 white people began to form outside the Sangamon County Courthouse, demanding the release of the two accused black men, intending to lynch them. Sensing the impending danger, the county sheriff, with the help of a white business owner named Harry Loper, secretly moved the two prisoners to another jail in Bloomington, IL, to ensure their safety.
The riot unfolds
The white mob erupted in mass racial violence after learning that the accused men had been relocated. They headed towards the black neighbourhoods, looting and damaging black-owned businesses, destroying homes, and eventually lynching two prominent members of the black community, Scott Burton and William Donegan.
Destruction and loss of life
The mob continued their rampage throughout Springfield and even extended their violence into smaller communities outside the city limits. They targeted stores containing guns and ammunition and carefully directed the participants to destroy only homes and businesses owned by Blacks or those that served black patrons. In doing so, they left nearby white-owned homes and businesses untouched.
Some black residents of Springfield fought back in self-defence, shooting at the mob when fired upon and attempting to protect their homes. Despite their efforts, the carnage continued, resulting in the deaths of six black people, the lynching of two more, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property damage. As a consequence of the riot, approximately two thousand black residents were driven out of the city.
In the riot’s aftermath, around 150 suspected mob participants were arrested. However, threats from other mob members deterred people from testifying against the accused. In a twist of fate, George Richardson, initially charged with assault, was revealed to have been wrongly identified and had his indictment dismissed.
National reaction and the formation of the NAACP
The Springfield Race Riot garnered national attention, particularly since it was the first race riot in the North in over half a century. The fact that it occurred in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, a symbol of emancipation and racial equality, shocked the nation and led to widespread calls for change. The riot served as a catalyst for white reformers, like Jane Addams, and black civil rights activists, such as W.E.B. DuBois, to come together and create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
The NAACP’s vision and impact
The NAACP’s vision was, and still is, to ensure a society where all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race. Established in New York City in 1910, the organisation has played a significant role in American history ever since, advocating for civil rights, voting rights, and racial equality.
Remembering the Springfield race riot
Several monuments and initiatives have been established in Springfield to commemorate the tragic events of 1908 and ensure they are never forgotten. These include sculptures, murals, and walking tours that serve as reminders of the city’s dark past and its impact on the nation.
Acts of intolerance sculpture
Acclaimed artist Preston Jackson created a sculpture to commemorate the Springfield Race Riot. His inspiration came from images of two charred chimneys standing in smouldering rubble from burned-out buildings. The detailed sculpture tells the story of the brutal 48 hours in Springfield’s history.
1908 Race Riot mural
A multi-media mural captures the events of the Springfield Race Riot and highlights key individuals, including those who were part of the establishment of the NAACP. The mural also tells the story of the riots and the formation of the NAACP, featuring a beautiful centrepiece by Preston Jackson depicting the Hospital Sisters caring for the victims of the Race Riot. A dove sculpture by Gianfranco Tassara, symbolising peace and healing, accompanies the mural.
City of Springfield 1908 Race Riot Walking Tour
A self-guided walking tour takes visitors on an emotional journey through the events of the Springfield Race Riot. Starting at the corner of 7th and Jefferson, the site of the old county jail, the tour follows a series of markers placed along the path of the destruction in downtown Springfield.
The Proposed National Monument
There is a growing movement to establish a national monument to honour the events of the Springfield Race Riot. The proposed monument would encompass an archaeological site near Madison Street and the 10th Street Rail Corridor, where the foundations of five houses burned down during the riot have been discovered. In 2014, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office determined that the area is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Bipartisan support and legislation
There is bipartisan support in Congress to protect the archaeological site and establish it as a national monument, with Republican Rodney Davis, who represents Springfield in the House, and both Illinois senators, Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, introducing the 1908 Springfield Race Riot National Monument Act. The legislation seeks to establish the site as a national monument managed by the National Park Service.
The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 is an essential part of American history that demonstrates the depth of racial inequality that existed during the early 20th century. As a turning point in history, it paved the way for the formation of the NAACP and the fight for racial justice in the United States.