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Remember to Not Forget

The Springfield riots and community memory 

Illinois Times

October 29, 2009

About how Springfield by the 1990s had forgotten what it learned in the 1970s about what it had forgotten since 1908, when race riots convulsed the city. A happy lesson for historians, because it makes clear that there will always be markets for new accounts of old events. 


The bronze sculpture commemorating the 1908 race riots was finally dedicated this summer on August 6, a century late. As all mayors must, Mayor Davlin said a few words at the ceremony in Union Square Park. “I think we also put up a monument over here,” he said, “to remind . . . current and future generations to never forget the tragedies that have happened in the past.”


“Forget”? A number of explanations have been offered, or at least hinted at, for Springfield’s ignorance of those days—shame, a monstrous indifference, official inattention intended to protect the reputation of the city. Whatever the dynamic at work, the forgetting was assumed to result from the deeds. How else, indeed, could the blank spot in the community memory be explained? The very awfulness of August 1908 must have been why so many people worked hard to not remember it.


But memories of this national scandal were not buried with the corpses of the victims. They lingered among the witnesses (including the participants) for decades after the newspapers quit writing about them. Or so I imagine. Part of the problem is not what is forgotten, but what is merely not recorded. Very little of what people say to each other, and less of what they think, gets written down, save by the literate classes, which introduces well-known biases to the social history of any recent era.


That’s why the phrase “Springfield forgot” is meaningless except as rhetoric. There were several Springfields then, as now, and the process of remembering was shaped by a different dynamic in each. Among the white working class that supplied the rioters, those memories were probably relished (and embellished) as battlefield stories are always relished by victors. The economic elites who identified with the city (and why not? they owned it) were understandably anxious for its good reputation, and eager therefore to suppress reminders of it, the way they hid the bottles emptied by the maiden aunt too fond of her tipple. Conscientious law enforcement officials wished not to be reminded of their failure to keep order and, later, their failure to get convictions on good evidence in the face of obdurate juries.


As that generation died off, the memories began to fade, like a billboard too long in the weather. They survived into the late 1940s, which was the real beginning of the modern civil rights era; the Springfield Council of Churches organized a Race Relations Committee, and Mrs. Alice Taborn, an African-American Springfielder, explained the segregation that then pertained in the city as an artifact of the riots. By the 1960s, when I was growing up, knowledge of the riots was as remote from public consciousness as the controversies of the second Yates administration.


By then, Springfield really had just forgotten. Humans seldom hold onto memories longer than a generation, unless those memories fuel a grievance. They get old, they forget even things they shouldn’t. Lots of old folks whose families were living in Springfield in 1908 remembered that there had been some trouble. But the details were vague or inaccurate, even in the African-American community.


Springfield has allowed a great many things to slip into the forgotten past in exactly the same way. No plaques today mark the sites of the inter-union violence in the 1930s that also sparked gun battles between miner factions in the streets of the capital. The city’s ongoing experiment in municipal socialism touches Springfieldians not only on holidays but every time they turn on a light switch, yet there are probably more residents who can name three members of Lincoln’s cabinet than can identify Willis Spaulding. And don’t forget that the publication of modern accounts of the riots beginning in the 1970s was not the only feat of historical recovery in Springfield in recent decades. Lincoln’s law career in central Illinois—the most important part of the life that is most important to Springfield—had been all but ignored even by scholars.


Will the markers and statues and murals and videos really ensure that the riot (as the State Journal-Register editorialized on the centenary last year) “does not slip back into forgotten history anytime soon”? Soon, yes. But a hundred years from now? Community memory is not like a tree that, once well-rooted, will live for years. It is more like a delicate annual that, unless fed regularly, withers. When it comes to the events of the past, we may paraphrase Lincoln: It will all become no thing. ●




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.

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