Unforgetting the Springfield race riots of 1908
August 14, 1980
A column recalling how the Springfield race riots of 1908 came to be forgotten, and about how I was involved in helping the city remember them, for a while.
Springfield residents will get the local jokes. Others can safely ignore them.
There was something interesting to read besides Police Beat in Springfield’s State Journal–Register on July 29. It was a feature supplement, called "The Front Page," and it offered reprints of a dozen "stories that chronicle the history of the city, the nation and the world" as they were portrayed on the front pages of it and its predecessor papers. The sinking of the Titanic was there, as was the Chicago fire and the first moon walk—the usual pop history, the good splashy stuff; the supplement reads like a preview of next season’s mini-series. The really important events, like the quiet day twenty years ago or so when for the first time more people made livings in service jobs than made them in manufacturing, make lousy headlines.
But there was another event whose absence I missed even more from the SJR’s collection. It was the Springfield race riots of 1908. On the fourteenth and fifteenth of August, seventy-two years ago, the capital city was witness to two days of white mob violence against the city’s blacks, a convulsion of shooting, looting, and arson which laid waste to blocks of the black belt, saw dozens of hapless blacks beaten and two more murdered, and then (in a superfluity of violence) hanged. In a sense it was a familiar story, lt was hot. There was a trumped-up charge of assault by a white woman against a black man. There was a crowd of hotheads, cowardly police, and an inflammatory press. What was unique to the Springfield riots, what had to be unique to Springfield, was the awful irony of it all happening in the city of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator whose home, one black family believed, would provide "an ideal Negro locality."
The violence had national repercussions. Revulsion at it led not-so-indirectly to the foundation out East of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—a distinction which subsequent chambers of commerce have been notably reluctant to claim. But in many ways the riots’ effects on Springfield make a more fascinating story. I grew up in Springfield, on a white block in a white subdivision. But I went to school with black kids from across the tracks and counted them among my friends from an early age. Yet I never heard of the riots. There were no school bus trips in the sixth grade to Spring and Edwards where old man Donnegan had his throat cut for living with a white woman. No one taught us in school about the black families who were literally run out of their homes, or (and this was part of the story too) of those few white families who bravely offered shelter from the mobs to black employees and neighbors. There was not—and still is not—a plaque on the site where white Springfield cursed Lincoln’s name.
I did not hear about the riots until I was nearly a man. But it was not until I met Cullom Davis that I was urged to make a more thorough investigation to try to catch their ghost. Cullom had just come to Springfield as the academic vice president of Sangamon State University, which then consisted of a suite of rooms in the Myers Building. He is an historian by training and an administrator only by circumstance. He knew of the riots—I forget how—and was intrigued by them. We collaborated on a bit of research which survives officially in the form of a pamphlet essay I called, much too melodramatically, Summer of Rage which was published in the fall of 1973 by the Sangamon County Historical Society. It was, as you might expect, the first and so far the only modern account of the riots in print.
Since then a few local teachers have used it as a subtext in history classes. I have spoken on television and radio about the riots, and Cullom, who fortunately is as energetic as he is accommodating, has delivered a slide lecture on the subject uncounted times; the only man who’s put in more public appearances in the last seven years is Doc Davidson. This willingness, even eagerness to learn about the riots is a new phenomenon. For six decades the subject simply was not written about, indeed not even talked about, at least not in public. It is easy to see why local whites would have denied the reality of the riots over the years, out of a sense of community if not individual shame, for the riots stripped the city of the cloak of Lincoln with which it had wrapped itself for the forty-three years previous.
There were other reasons for public silence by the press and officials. Among businesspeople, the desire to erase the memory of the riots had mercantile motives; no political and tourism center is likely to benefit from a reputation for civil violence. Springfield had been corrupt for decades with gambling, prostitution, and the political payoffs needed to sustain both. But riots were different. Riots were too noisy.
So the riots became, unofficially, a non-event. Survivors were often reluctant to talk, and as we quickly learned, not just to the earnest detectives who suddenly showed up on their porches with tape recorders and rude questions. This was true of blacks and whites alike.
Indeed, we found that many blacks had not talked to their own children about their experiences in 1908, or if they did it was in vague terms. Their recollections may have owed some of their vagueness to failing memory. But some of it was reticence which, against my expectations, had survived six decades and the civil rights revolution.
I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago while reading a brief essay by a Mr. Paul Cowan. Cowan was writing about his research into a textile mill strike that began in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, an event Cowan calls "the Appomattox of the industrial labor movement." As he talked to the now-aged participants, Cowan was struck that most people in Lawrence devalued their role in the fight for better wages. One girl, whose testimony before Congress about wretched mill conditions had been played on front pages across the country, had told her daughter nothing about her role in the strike. "Why had she, like thousands of others in Lawrence, lost that past?" Cowan asked.
Cowan provided a clue. "From the industrialist’s point of view, it was important to transform participation in struggles like Lawrence’s from a badge of honor to a stain on one’s reputation." Something very much like that happened in Springfield. Soon after the event, proper Springfield was pointing to the corruption in the vice-ridden Levee district as an extenuating circumstance, if not an excuse, for the riots while failing to point out that the district was largely owned and patronized by whites, and that the Levee’s black precinct bosses owed their positions to a Republican political machine under the thumb of an Irishman. They decried incidents of black violence against whites—while failing to condemn the press hysteria which distorted and exaggerated those events. They pointed to outside agitators, especially European immigrants—while failing to admit that, as one observer put it at the time, "a large part of the white population of Lincoln’s home" had initiated "a permanent warfare with the Negro race."
Cowan found that in Lawrence, local industrialists had seized on a banner carried in a parade to accuse strikers of being atheists, so "the insurgents, not the working conditions, became the town’s main issue." The press was the agent of the counter-attack in Springfield. William Walling, a visiting journalist, noted that part of the Springfield press had failed to make "a complete denial of the whole hypocritical case against the Negro," and in fact argued it themselves. The Illinois State Journal argued, "It was not the fact of the whites’ hatred toward the negroes, but of the negroes’ own misconduct, general inferiority or unfitness for free institutions that were at fault." It was a lie, but one which voiceless blacks were powerless to contradict.
Maybe Springfield blacks of two generations ago, like Lawrence’s strikers, "were unwilling to burden their young with a history that had caused them such psychological and economic hardship." Perhaps, as was suggested to me, there was a reluctance to admit to their progeny, children of the ’60s, that they had not made a more active resistance. I don’t know. The reticence of the SJR to air its role is easier to understand. A newspaper in many ways is our community memory; the most voluminous archives of local history are kept not at the library but in the files of the local paper. The SJR’s predecessors helped induce that convenient amnesia which enabled much of Springfield to forget about the riots until a few years ago.
To have reprinted a front page from August of 1908 would have been to admit a shameful episode not just from the city’s past but from its own as well. It would also risk the asking of delicate questions about the SJR’s present relationship with the city’s black community. Which is precisely why the paper should have done it. A sudden shock often causes amnesia. Sometimes a sudden shock is also its best cure. ●