A Sorry Tale, Well Told
The best account of the Springfield race riots
September 27, 1990
As I never quite said in this Prejudices column, I was just as dismayed as I was delighted to read the Seneschal book when it first came out. First-class accounts of important Illinois events are always to be welcomed, even if, as here, they make my account of the same event look like a high school term paper.
Reviewed: The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 by Roberta Senechal, University of Illinois Press, 1990
Sometimes it happens that the effect of events is a great cause. In August of 1908, mobs of white people attempted, during two days of murder, arson, and assaults, to drive the African-American citizens of Springfield from the city The Springfield race riots led to the founding in New York in 1910 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in Springfield to a prolonged period of civic forgetfulness.
The latter is dissipated unflinchingly by a new book, The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot by Roberta Senechal, an associate professor of history at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University. The book’s unfortunate title suggests a forbidding work of sociology in which the obvious is pummelled to death with data. Senechal proves to be an analyst of uncommon clarity and common sense in everything but book titles.
Senechal was attracted to the topic, she explains, because the Springfield riots offer "a special opportunity to explore anew the broader dynamics of race relations in the urban North." Her method might be described as an example of Higher Journalism. As she puts it, "Explanation must be built from the ground up.” Beginning with a straightforward narrative of the events themselves, she considers the contributory factors that fed the violence and its social and legal aftermath. To do so, she compiled sketches of dozens of riot participants and their victims. The result is a much more detailed version than any yet produced, one that is more grounded in the particulars of place—and human nature—than too many analyses of group behavior.
The riots in Springfield were not the earliest or the bloodiest anti-black mob action to erupt in a Northern town, although what Senechal calls "the baleful symbolism" of race war in Lincoln’s home town made them for a time the most notorious. Riots and lynchings were only the most extreme of the methods used by whites to subordinate local African-American populations before World War I.
The assumption that whites set the limits to blacks' behavior was general in Springfield. When a touring theatrical company brought to town William Dixon’s scabrously racist play, The Clansman, a committee of black Springfieldians warned the mayor that public performance might excite violence; the mayor’s response was to ban black people from the theater.
Senechal concluded that the theories usually offered in explanation of urban race riots in the U.S.—economic competition, transplanted Southern-style racism, or "social strain" caused by blacks insufficiently respectful of the racial status quo—are irrelevant or inadequate when applied to 1908 Springfield. There had been no recent massive increase in black population, no ”invasion" by families of color into previously all-white residential enclaves, no capture by black workers of jobs coveted by whites. White anxieties about the changing place of blacks reflected black progress less than they reflected white fears, Senechal argues. The threat to social order that locals offered in mitigation of the violence consisted mainly of the fact that black people had become more visible on downtown streets in the months preceding the riots. Simply seeing black people frightened many white Springfieldians.
After the militiamen had packed their tents, the town’s respectable whites sought to portray the rioters as riff-raff. It was true that the people arrested and indicted were almost certainly poorer than the mobs as a whole. (Law enforcement, Senechal suggests, was biased by class as well as by color.) Influential whites saw a specter of mob rule in the rioters’ challenge to official authority What the former had cheered at first as a civic housecleaning aimed at ridding Springfield of black-skinned undesirables quickly came to look more like rebellion than reform.
The rioters hardly constituted a rabble nevertheless. ”It was, above all, a working class riot," Senechal concluded. The typical rioter was a white male in his mid–twenties, an unmarried, semiskilled laborer whose day-to-day life both on the job and in his north side neighborhood did not bring him into close contact with African-Americans. Railroad men and the Irish were disproportionately numerous among the crowds; Southerners were disproportionately scarce.
And the victims? The accepted version of the riots held that the rioters’ wrath was aimed at the town’s criminal element. But the gambling halls and opium dens and whorehouses frequented by whites were untouched by the mobs, and many of the black businesses that were ravaged (such as barbershops) were eminently respectable by the standards of a town that was home to the General Assembly. Senechal found that the incidence of home ownership among the burned-out residents of the "Black Belt" on the east side was actually somewhat higher than that of the city as a whole.
Understanding class, Senechal found, is essential to understanding the riots. The mobs’ aggression was not random. The organizers of guerrilla-style attacks on the second night of rioting, for example, "aimed high up the black social ladder." The case for color alone as the cause of the riots is further eroded by the fact that some whites—Jewish businessmen mainly—also were singled out for attack. Anti-Semitism has been under-appreciated as a motive for the rioting. One of the few arrestees brought to trial was a Jewish St. Louisan named Abe Raymer; as a foreign-born non-Christian with no roots in Springfield who harbored radical political sympathies, Raymer was an atypical rioter but a perfect scapegoat.
It is easy to understand why official Springfield might wish to forget the riots. Senechal finds scarcely anyone in power whose response to the attempted program was not cowardly hypocritical, or lacking in compassion. Even those few worthies who risked community censure by calling for the punishment of rioters seemed more eager for a restoration of law than for justice. The Springfield establishment persistently misunderstood its working class townspeople, black and white; because it misdiagnosed the disease, it had no chance of effecting a cure.
lt is a sorry tale, well told, and all too relevant. What happened in Springfield in 1908 differs only in scale from what happens today in places like Bensonhurst. Today’s history: you might say is tomorrow’s news. □