Remember to Not Forget
The Springfield riots and community memory
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. ●