top of page

Black and White and Green

Racial change in 1970s Springfield

Illinois Times

May 8, 1981

The demographic trends confirmed by the 1980 Census that are noted here have continued to reshape the City of Springfield and its suburban hinterland. The African American population of the city proper as of 2019 was 20 percent of the whole, more than double what it was in 1980.


Census reports are like the Bible, in that one can cite them to prove almost any proposition. The U.S. Census Bureau has released part of its final data from the 1980 counts for Springfield and Sangamon County. (So far that data deals only with basic population for the county and its political subdivisions; more detailed data on income, housing, and the rest is expected by autumn.) By and large, the census confirmed trends which have been evident in the capital for years, most notably the outward migration from the central city into the urban fringe; urbanized Springfield grew by less than one percent while the rest of the county grew by roughly 39 percent.


Some of these numbers, however, were surprising. For example, the State Journal-Register trumpeted one of the new findings in a recent story titled "County black population up 45 percent." The number of black people counted in metropolitan Springfield in 1970 was 7,756; in 1980 that number had jumped to 11,277. Since the city's white population shrank by two percent during the decade, the share of the city's population that is black went up too, from 6.1 percent to 8.9 percent.


Springfield has experienced an expansion of black population once before in its history. (I have disregarded the years before 1870, when the black population was so small that the arrival of a single family of five constituted a population boom.) Between 1870 and 1880, black population rose by 64 percent, to 6.7 percent of the city's total population. After 1890 the black population continued to grow (although not showing so marked an increase) so that by 1900 black people made up 7.2 percent of the population. Not until 1980 did the percentage of blacks reach so high again.


Seventy-three years ago, a black man named Harvey moved to Springfield from Kentucky, expecting to find what he called "an ideal Negro locality in the home of the Great Emancipator." He left three weeks later, at the urgent invitation of white mobs who besieged his house during the race riots of 1908. Given this heritage, it is difficult to see Springfield as a mecca for black people.


Of course, it is possible that the 45 percent increase never really happened at all. Local black leaders note that blacks in Springfield were probably under-counted in 1970, a failure the census worked hard to rectify in 1980, The result was not more black people, just more black people counted.


But were 3,521 new black people merely conjured up by the computers? I doubt it. Two other trends boosted black population during the '70s. One of these was the fact that black babies were being born more often than white ones. Statistics on file at the Illinois Department of Public Health reveal that the birth rate for nonwhites in Sangamon County (a category which for all intents and purposes means blacks) during the 1970s ranged from two to three times higher than the birth rate for whites.


Birth rates are seldom discussed in polite society, except as they relate to the production of grandchildren. The white middle class, which has kids the way it has cars—it buys very few in a lifetime, but expects those to last—avoid it for the same reason they avoid discussing nuclear warfare, because both pose a threat of annihilation by natural forces too overwhelming to resist. Historically-minded nonwhites, on the other hand, don't like to give whites ideas (there is a body of opinion that views free abortions for the poor as a form of black genocide) although Sanjay Gandhi salvaged Europeans' reputations somewhat by proving that one needn't be white to be a reproductive fascist.


High birth rates are not a function of race, however. Poor blacks tend to have a lot of babies, true, but middle-class blacks do not. High birth rates are better attributed to economics or ignorance. Or religious scruple; when school gets out every day, Whittier Avenue in Blessed Sacrament parish in the white near west side looks like an ants' nest. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that black kids are being born faster than white kids, and that a significant part of that 45 percent increase thus may reasonably be attributed to natural increase.


A second factor in Springfield's black population growth is the in-migration of black professionals, bureaucrats, and academics. A Sangamon State University professor ventured the guess in the SJR that some of that 45 percent increase took the form of black professionals hired during the 1970s. There is some truth to that; Springfield is the state's bureaucratic capital in addition to political one, and public agencies during the '70s strove mightily to prove that the Peter Principle could be applied to black people as well as white. The need by agencies to meet affirmative action quotas created what can only be called a black market for white-collar blacks.


The growth of this black middle class in the last ten years is significant socially if not demographically. In its article, the SJR marveled that six census tracts showed a black population increase of 100 percent or more since 1970. More telling is the fact that five of these tracts are located on the affluent west and south sides of the city. In Tract 10, which includes subdivisions with names like Country Club Acres and where a grass catcher is always considered the perfect gift, two black people lived in 1970 in what must have been an awful solitude; their main problem was not people burning crosses on their lawns but their neighbors constantly mistaking them for gardeners. But by 1980 the neighborhood was home to 282 black residents. Those 282 people amount to only 3.7 percent of the neighborhood, to be sure, and in all six of these tracts the number of black people is fewer than 1,000. Still, these shifts mark a step forward.


However, the census also confirmed that most of Springfield's black population is still headquartered on the east side. Roughly three-fourths of the city's African Americans live in one foursquare-mile area, and five east-side census tracts actually grew more black during the '70s, going from 45 percent black to 51 percent.


Whether this concentration deserves the title "ghetto," however, is debatable. Even in the most heavily black census tract blacks make up only 68 percent of the total population. There is an understandable resentment by some blacks to the habit some whites have of labeling any neighborhood with more than five black families in it as a ghetto; indeed, the question implied in the SJR's piece is, "Why haven't more blacks left the east side?" Howard Veal, who runs the local Urban League, was quoted in that piece, and he reminded us many blacks stay on the east side because that's the neighborhood they want to live in. Whites have long been flattered to think that blacks want to live where they live, when in fact most blacks simply want to live the way whites live.


But this concentration of black families is not entirely a matter of choice. Whites who can afford it have been moving out, and some affluent blacks too, leaving poor blacks behind. The dispersal of the black middle class into previously white bastions at the same time that the majority of blacks is being stranded in central city enclaves seems contradictory. The SJR report concluded fussily that the data is "inconclusive" to show whether housing in Springfield is segregated.


Nonsense. Money transcends race as a factor in housing, just as it transcends education and class and religious prejudice. Business greed has been worth a hundred fair housing boards in opening up Springfield neighborhoods. In the process, this private enrichment has done a public good, because once-nervous whites have learned that their objections were not to color after all, but to class.


It is a valuable lesson. Springfield's housing market is segregated, all right, but not by race. It is segregated by money. If poor blacks live in a ghetto, it's because they are poor, not because they are black. One can't dismiss race as a factor in housing patterns, of course; all other things being equal, race is still a disqualifying factor to many landlords, real estate brokers, and bankers. But in a competitive housing market, all other things are not equal. The census numbers can't explain why so many blacks remain poor. But they can prove that if you have money in Springfield, you can buy anything—a house, social position, votes, even racial tolerance. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page