Summer of Rage
The Springfield Race Riot of 1908
Sangamon County Historical Society
This ugly little booklet was probably the most important single work in my professional life. It made my name in Springfield, and it indirectly led to my association with Illinois Times, which in turn led to so much else.
Neither the publication project which gave it birth nor the topic was original to me. For both, I owe Cullom Davis, professor of history at Springfield's new public university, Sangamon State. With Cullom’ help I wrote up a summary account of an ugly episode from 1908 in which white mobs marauded through the capital’s African American neighborhoods, burning and lynching; revulsion abroad at these events was pivotal in inspiring the founding of the NAACP. The story was published as a pamphlet by the Sangamon County Historical Society in its new Bicentennial Studies in Sangamon History series.
Old folks, black and white remembered the riots or hearing about them. But the story surprised and appalled most of polite Springfield. Publication excited responses ranging from “I never knew that happened in Springfield” to the much more gratifying “I never knew that could happen in Springfield.” Cullom made the circuit with a slide show about the riots, and Springfield's shame was the subject of newspaper articles. If Springfield didn't know about the riots before 1973, it knew about them afterwards.
For a while.
As for its quality as history, SOR was a sophomore effort of a sort that journalists dismiss with due contempt as a clip job, drawing upon published accounts rather than original sources, a luridly titled melodrama with source notes, and crudely printed article . Overwritten and under-researched, in short. (I talked a bit in 1980 about how the project came about and how it was received in a column in my Prejudices series that ran in Illinois Times.)
Summer of Rage compares unfavorably to an academic history of these same events that came out some years later. That was Roberta Senechal’s 1990 The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot,” a book I wrote about here and here. I addressed the comparison in a column in my Dyspepsiana series, Clio in the cornfields, in which I note that “writing history is not quite the same as writing about history. Ask an opinion columnist and culture critic to write a history of the Springfield race riot, for example, and you will get something like Summer of Rage . . . . The point in writing it was simply to announce to an unknowing city that the events of that August had happened. This would have been a piece of historical journalism I was capable of. Explaining the riots as well required more than I knew."
Because of the sensational nature of its subject matter, the booklet sold well in the capital city, which emboldened the historical society to do more such titles. As for its qualities as an object, we were pinching pennies. We opted for a one-color cover, for which I chose—it being the ‘70s—brown ink on beige stock. I have dreamed ever since of doing it again properly and add enough new material to deserve a fresh copyright—maybe a two-color color on white, add to it an account I did for IT about the trials that resulted from the riots, and a new introduction in which I recount the odd history of the history of the riots.
Summer of Rage had been allowed to go out of print—I had left town by then—and Springfield had after the brief excitement in 1973, slipped back into its usual somnambulant state.
In 1991, Lindsay Harney and Amanda Staab, sixth-graders at Iles School, did a history project on the race riot. They were appalled, in the way that only bright sixth-graders can be, that that there was no memorial or marker to commemorate the riots. “Most people I talked to said they lived here all their life and had no idea the riot happened,” Harney later told the Chicago Sun-Times.
In truth, the events of 1980 had never been completely forgotten in Springfield, as young Amanda Wiesenhofer made clear in this article from in 2001. Springfield Race Riot of 1908: Preserving a Memory by Amanda Wiesenhofer. Constructing the Past, Volume 2, Issue 1, Article 7, 2001 Illinois Wesleyan University.
Nonetheless, one commentator wrote that the students’ final report “stunned" the white community. Who knew?
Reading this in the 1990s, I wanted to weep. The students of the early 1990s of course were children of the same whites who been stunned by the news of the same event in 1973. Even a cursory, pre-Internet search would have turned up SOR, copies of which also were on library shelves all over town.
In any event, monuments were commissioned, informational plaques installed, and an instructional video produced. The historical society even reprinted Summer of Rage, in 1996. I was of two minds whether it deserved to be put out again, but as owner of the copyright I granted the society permission to do so as my contribution to the project. I fully expect to be asked to do it again in twenty or thirty years, if I live that long.
Please note that the title is misleading. In more recent years I have described these events (I believe more accurately) as the race riots of 1980.
Summer of Rage: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908
Foreword by Cullom Davis
Springfield and its inhabitants enjoy the distinction of having a rich sense of civic history and a generous share of attention in history books. Our prominent place in the state’s and nation’s history can be explained by the two outstanding facts of our past: Abraham Lincoln and the 1908 race riot. While both Lincoln and the riot have shared a common susceptibility to legend and mythology, the martyred president and an ugly outbreak of racial violence are an odd historical couple. Lincoln immortalized Springfield while the race riot scandalized it; Lincoln made the city famous while the race riot made it infamous.
The fact that Springfield’s two principal claims to historical recognition produced opposite reactions may explain why we have spent so much time and energy preserving the memory of Lincoln and erasing or at least slighting the memory of the riot. Our most famous resident is remembered in restored buildings, bronze tablets, statues and solemn holidays, but there are no memorials for our most famous event. it is painful, and some would say unnecessary, for a proud and progressive community to acknowledge such a tragic episode in its past. Even 65 years after the killing and pillage ended many thoughtful citizens object to public discussion of this sensitive subject.
There are, however, powerful and compelling reasons for removing the 1908 riot from Springfield’s historical closet. However embarrassing and painful its memory may be, the riot remains the most important event in the city’s history. It had powerful and lasting repercussions locally, and also important consequences in Illinois and the nation. One of its immediate effects was to spur civil rights leaders and serve as their rallying cause in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Another reason is that young people and adults living in Springfield are entitled to a balanced and accurate account of the event. Most citizens appear either to know nothing about the riot or to have a crude impression based on hearsay rather than history. There are rumors and distortions about those violent days in August of 1908 that need to be corrected. Finally, one measure of a community’s essential strength and self-esteem is its capacity to confront the mistakes as well as the accomplishments of its past and to learn from them.
The purpose of this brief history is not to embarrass the city of Springfield or stir racial feelings, but to illuminate a dark recess in our history. The author has engaged in extensive research on the subject in preparation for a full book-length treatment. This short account covers the highlights of his findings and provides the general reading public with a factual and balanced picture of a sad but significant story.
There are a number of people without whose kind assistance the preparation of this manuscript would have been impossible. Chief among them is Cullom Davis, Associate Professor of History at Sangamon State University in Springfield. It was Mr. Davis’ contagious enthusiasm and curiosity about the 1908 riots as an historical event which originally stimulated my own research into the topic. In addition, Mr. Davis generously granted me free access to the fruits of his own considerable research—among other things, I am indebted to him for having unearthed the photographs which appear in this book and for assembling valuable background demographic and historical data relating to the black population of Sangamon County.
I would also like to thank the staff of the Information Center of Springfield’s Lincoln Library, who endured my many questions and requests for materials with patience and courtesy. Likewise, the cooperation of Mildred Schulz, Al Von Behren, and the rest of the staff of the Illinois State Historical Library was essential to the completion of this project.
Finally, I would like to express my appreciation to Mr. Robert Howard for his perceptive criticisms of the manuscript.
James Krohe Jr.
Summer of Rage: The Springfield
Race Riot of 1908
Little was left of Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield in the summer of 1908 but the memory of the great man himself. In the forty-three years since the death of its most prominent citizen, the Illinois capital had risen from a self-conscious prairie village into a bustling hub of a thriving farming and manufacturing center. Paving brick had long ago replaced the treacherous wooden plank sidewalks of the 1860 capital, and the townspeople, who not so many years before had to contend with ankle-deep mud and basking pigs as they made their way around the square, now rode in dry comfort on brand-new trolley cars. The black dirt fields just outside town were thick with the scent of ripening corn, and, far below the surface, six and a half thousand men clawed and sweated their way through some of the richest veins of soft coal to be found anywhere in the United States.
Springfield’s transformation from backwater to boom town had been managed with far more energy than grace. The elegant mansions of the city’s industrial barons gave way on Springfield’s east side to the hastily-built shacks of the factory district. It was here, in the shadow of the coal tipples and smokestacks, that the legions of laborers lived who dug the coal and forged the steel of Sangamon County. The opening of the Central Illinois coal fields in the waning years of the 19th Century had triggered an expansion of goldrush proportions. Springfield’s population, swollen by the arrival of thousands of families fleeing the still-devastated farmlands of the American South, had grown from 25,000 to more than 49,000 since 1890. Added to this domestic migration was a rising tide of European immigrants who, like their native American counterparts, had come to the Land of Lincoln to trade their labor for a chance at a new life.
Springfield in 1908 was a proud, confident, dirty, growing—and corrupt city. The problem centered in the “Levee” district along Washington Street between Seventh and Tenth Streets. Frequented by what one indignant editorialist called a “dissolute and criminally-inclined” class of blacks, the Levee was a more or less permanent scandal which visitors always deplored and local people usually overlooked. Washington Street was the place where the local sporting element (and not a few visiting politicians and conventioneers) could, for a price, satisfy their less respectable appetites in no fewer than twenty-two saloons, a dozen back-room brothels, and unnumbered gambling parlors. Outbreaks of violence among the Levee’s citizens were commonplace—local police refused to enter the area alone—and most Springfieldians were forced to agree with the editor of the Joliet Weekly News, who called the place a “disgrace and stench to the civilized world.”
The moral corruption of the Levee was matched by the political rottenness that flourished there. Local grafters presided over a political machine whose wickedness had earned it a reputation that was as widespread as it was unsavory. The Levee’s gamblers and saloon keepers ruled their fiefdom with little interference from the city fathers, many of whom had joined the bosses in a mutually profitable alliance cemented by the bonds of graft. Their joint control of the city’s election machinery further guaranteed that any unnaturally ethical challengers could be easily, if not always legally, eliminated at the polls. The Levee weighed heavily on the conscience of Springfield’s upright majority, and reformers (led by a wrathful local clergy) railed against the evils of the machine at every opportunity. But the preachers’ hellfire and brimstone was no match for the cold cash of the ward bosses, and the Levee remained impervious to reform.
Ultimately, the Levee’s survival depended on the bosses’ ability to deliver the vote in local aldermanic contests, and for that they needed the black vote. As one critic noted, “The Negro vote is large enough to be of importance in the (city) elections, and the Negro vote can be bought.” The fact that most of Springfield’s nearly 3000 black citizens shared the whites’ bitter outrage at this state of public affairs did little to influence prevailing opinion on the issue. The conspicuous role played by some blacks in the unholy pageant of life on the Levee lent an ominously racist tone to the complaints of the city’s whites, and aggravated race feeling that was already dangerously strained.
For, beneath the soot and grime of a Northern factory town, Springfield wore a Southern face. Her social and professional elite, like many of the farmers and laborers living in the surrounding county, had come to the capital from border states like Kentucky and Missouri. In everything from her stately homes and the grand manner of her private entertainments to her murky political intrigues, Springfield had more in common with Birmingham than with Albany.
The Southern heritage of her people was also reflected in her racial attitudes. Although slavery had always been illegal in antebellum Illinois, the practice of hiring blacks as indentured servants had been common among the city’s prominent families until it was outlawed in the mid-1800’s. During the Civil War, Southern sympathizers had been numerous and outspoken, and abolitionism was considered a dangerous, almost treasonous sentiment in Mr. Lincoln’s Springfield. Race relations in the Capital City retained their Southern flavor nearly a generation after the war, and whites regarded the city’s small black population with a smugly tolerant paternalism until the end of the 19th Century. It was a period later wistfully referred to as the “golden age of Springfield race relations.”
By the dawn of the 20th Century, however, the great migration of Southern blacks to Illinois industrial centers like Chicago, Peoria, and Springfield was well underway. In the minds of many of Springfield’s whites, this influx of blacks brought with it a threatened end to white social and economic dominance. Accustomed patterns of race relations became strained and were eventually torn by the pressures of rapid social change. One local writer bemoaned the fact that “the Negro of Springfield is not the Negro of the South. He is usually ready to open up an argument that he is as good as a white man.” This aggressive attitude appalled ex-Southerners used to the comfortable days when blacks knew their “place” without being told. In less than twenty years, the pendulum of public opinion on the race issue swung from tolerance to open hostility.
It was not only transplanted Southerners, however, who felt a deepening aversion to blacks. The recent flood of white workers into Sangamon County had been matched by a proportional increase in the local black population. Census reports for the year 1900 had shown what most nervous whites already knew, that Springfield had a higher percentage of black residents than any other major Illinois city. (According to the U.S. Census reports for the years 1900, 6.5% of Springfield’s population was Negro, 79.9% was native white, and another 13.6% was foreign-born white. By comparison, East St. Louis was 6.1% black, Chicago 1.8%, Decatur 3.0%, and Peoria 2.5%.) All three groups—native whites, European immigrants, and blacks—vied in direct and often heated competition for precious jobs in the mines and factories around Springfield.
This competition had once before led to the spilling of blood. Just ten years earlier, in the tiny town of Virden twenty miles to the south of Springfield, owners of the Chicago-Virden Coal Company had attempted to break a six-month strike by importing a train-load of job-hungry black laborers from the South. An armed clash between striking miners and company guards left ten men dead and dozens wounded. And Virden was not an isolated incident. In Pana and Carterville, as they had in Virden, mine owners tried to break strikes by recruiting black workers as scabs. It was a practice whose significance was not lost on the mining men of Sangamon County. Such incidents added the heat of labor strife to smoldering cultural conflicts, until, by the summer of 1908, the melting pot was coming to a boil.
* * *
The mounting racial tension was heightened on July 4, 1908 by the murder of Clergy Ballard. Ballard was a respected mining engineer, a white man, who had died from razor wounds inflicted when he grappled with a late-night intruder in his home. His assailant was a black vagrant named Joe James. The killing was the tragic outcome of what was probably a common burglary, but Ballard’s young daughter had been sleeping in the room in which James was discovered, and the press concluded that the crime had been an attempted sexual assault. The Illinois State Journal, the town’s largest morning daily, maintained that the unfortunate Ballard had “given his life in defense of his child,” and stated editorially that, “.. .concerning (the Negro) and the questions which arise from his presence in the community, it is well to preserve silence at this time. The state of the public mind,” the paper hinted darkly, “is such that comment can only add fuel to the feeling that has burst forth with general knowledge of the crime.”
The “state of the public mind” in mid-July was bitterly anti-black. The hangman was almost cheated of a commission when James was caught by a band of irate whites and beaten senseless—the suspect would have been killed had not law officers rescued him by hauling him off to jail. James was to have been tried shortly after his arrest, but the presiding judge, well aware of the emotions stirred by the case, postponed the trial until autumn, when tempers would be cooler. But the delay only sparked more rumors. James was a familiar figure on the Levee, and the postponement was widely thought to have been arranged by the bosses. Justice, said many an angry white, was being cheated.
The festering resentment over the James case had not yet begun to subside when Springfield was jolted again. On August 13, Mabel Hallam, the twenty-one year old wife of a city streetcar conductor, was the victim of a midnight assault in the bedroom of her home. The culprit, according to the distraught victim, was a black man. The press reacted to this latest incident with a passion that bordered on the pathological. DRAGGED FROM HER BED AND OUTRAGED BY NEGRO screamed a Journal headline, while the Illinois State Register called the crime “one of the greatest outrages that ever happened in Springfield.” The Register went on to urge that “no effort be spared to find the black viper and to force appropriate punishment.” In a piece published the day after the assault, one editor asked, “Is there any way to relieve the community of this fear?”
The answer to that question was not long in coming.
All during the afternoon of Friday, August 14, men had been gathering in the dusty street in front of the Sangamon County jail at Seventh and Jefferson. Inside, under the nervous eye of sheriffs deputies, sat George Richardson, a thirty-six year old black hod carrier arrested on his way to work that morning arid later identified by Mabel Hallam as the man who had assaulted her the night before. With him was Joe James, accused killer of Clergy Ballard. The shriek of the factory whistles at quitting time marked the arrival of dozens of miners, plant hands, and streetcar workers coming into town for a weekend’s diversion. They joined a sizable retinue of weekend shoppers, curious tourists, and young rowdies, until, by suppertime, the crowd numbered several thousand.
During the early hours of its vigil, the crowd had shown no signs of bad temper. But as the day dragged on and the thermometer crept past the 90 degree mark, the crowd’s mood changed. They wanted Richardson, and they wanted him soon.
Inside the brick, barracks-like jailhouse, Sheriff Charles Werner began to worry. He knew that his deputies would not be able to withstand a determined assault on the jail, and the talk outside hinted at violence. At 4 o’clock he had stationed deputies at the jailhouse windows, each armed with a rifle and a fresh box of cartridges. Their orders were simple—at the first sign of an attack, they were to shoot to kill. Werner was determined to prevent a lynching even if he had to litter the street with dead men, but by 5 o’clock he realized that his meager force could not hold their ground for long. At the request of Sheriff Werner, Springfield Mayor Roy Reece had called up local units of the state militia at 4:15 P.M. to aid in the defense of the jailhouse. The company was not assembled until nearly 7 P.M., however, and even then was unable to offer the mobs any real resistance. The chances of getting George Richardson to trial alive were growing slimmer by the minute. The prisoners would have to be moved.
Shortly after five, the sheriff put his plan into action. A false fire alarm was phoned into the fire station next door. The exit of the clanging fire engine did what Werner hoped it would do—it distracted the crowd long enough to allow him and his men to slip both Richardson and James out a rear entrance and into a waiting car. The prisoners were then driven to a rail siding on the outskirts of town, where they were put on a train headed for Bloomington and safety, sixty miles away.
Back at the jail, the crowd had reassembled after their futile chase. They were hot and winded and in no mood to take Werner’s word that Richardson and James were no longer in the jail. Leaders of the group insisted that they be allowed to enter the building and see for themselves. Werner admitted a committee of five, who emerged minutes later with the news that the cells were empty.
The sun had set by then, and the crowd, many of whom had been standing in the scorching sun since before noon, was frustrated and irate. Their vengeance had been thwarted by a schoolboy trick, and the knowledge of the ruse did nothing to improve their disposition. Most of the men did not leave the jail, but stayed in the street, milling around, each man as uncertain as the next about what to do next. Then, at dusk, word flashed through the crowd that the automobile used to carry Richardson and James beyond their grasp belonged to Harry Loper, a local restaurateur. The crowd, “hooting and threatening,” headed south toward the downtown business district five blocks away.
Their destination was Loper’s Restaurant at 223 South Fifth Street. A spacious eatery decked out in what, in turn-of-the-century Springfield, was considered elegant style, Loper’s stood barely 200 feet from the county courthouse. The marchers from the jailhouse came to a halt just short of Loper’s door, their enthusiasm for a row cooled by the sight of Loper himself standing in the doorway brandishing a rifle. It was a standoff, and for more than an hour nothing more lethal than insults were hurled at Richardson’s offending benefactor.
Then, just before 8:30 P.M, the menace that had hung in the muggy air all afternoon finally erupted into violence. Loper’s car, which was parked in the street in front of the restaurant, was overturned. The move triggered a general assault by the mob. A plate ~ass window was sent crashing to the sidewalk when an unknown marksman shattered it with a brick. The mob (quite a few of which had been quenching their summer thirst in nearby taverns) responded with a hail of bricks, stones, and empty beer bottles. Cries of “Curse the day that Lincoln freed the niggers!” and “Abe Lincoln brought ‘em to Springfield and we’ll run ‘em out” were heard as the front of the building was reduced to shambles. Those not actively engaged in the riot stood on the sidelines shouting encouragements to those who were.
City policemen, refusing to act out of either fear or an unspoken approval, did nothing to halt the attack. (Four city policemen were later indicted by a special grand jury for their failure to suppress the riot. The police force as a whole was commended by that same body for their efforts to stem the violence, and it was generally conceded that it was a lack of manpower, rather than cowardice, that prevented the police from putting an early stop to the trouble.)
After the building’s front had been wrecked, the mob hesitated for a moment until Kate Howard stepped to the front of the crowd. A well-known rooming house proprietress whose physical bulk was as formidable as her oft-stated hatred of black people, Howard taunted the weak-willed among them with a challenge. “What the hell are you fellows afraid of?” she demanded. “Women want protection and this seems the only way to get it.” With the redoubtable Kate leading the way, the mob stormed into the interior of the restaurant, smashing furniture, mirrors, glassware, plates, chandeliers—anything within reach. What couldn’t be wrecked by hand was hauled outside and piled in the street, where it was set afire. Loper’s car was also put to the torch. The mob, by now thoroughly drunk on liquor guzzled from Loper’s bar stock, greeted the sight in a frenzy of destructive glee.
Roy Reece, Springfield’s young mayor, arrived at the scene at about 10 o’clock. The mob had begun to shoot up the remains of the building when Reece stood before the crowd and appealed for calm. He was greeted by a barrage of threats, and Reece, his escort vastly outnumbered, prudently sought refuge in the back room of a nearby cigar store.
Having laid waste to Loper’s the mob turned east toward the Levee. Thousands of people, most of them onlookers attracted to the scene by the commotion at Loper’s, streamed down Washington Street. Osburne’s Colored Barber Shop was ransacked and its fixtures destroyed. Chester Johnson’s saloon across the street was wrecked and its contents eagerly consumed. Dandy Jim Steele’s Delmonico Restaurant was left a total loss, and the nearby Star Theatre was ravaged. At Fishman’s Pawn Shop, looters stole guns and ammunition from display windows, and the rioters, now armed and in a mean .mood, went on a shooting rampage through the Levee. Stray bullets sliced through the air in all directions—some thirty rioters and bystanders would be wounded by gunfire before the night was over—and the cries of stricken men mixed with the noise of breaking glass and splintering wood. By the time they were through, twelve places of business had been totally destroyed, and another eleven damaged.
From the Levee the mob veered in the direction of the “Badlands,” the black residential district that straddled the Madison Street railroad tracks five blocks to the north. The home of several hundred poor black workers and their families, the Badlands was a tinderbox of one-room hovels and rough board shacks. Houses along the mob’s route were systematically set afire, and by 1 A.M. whole blocks were in flames. Attempts by the fire department to save the blazing shacks were stymied by the rioters, who cut through the firemen’s hoses as soon as they were laid down. White-owned homes and businesses in the district were marked by white handkerchiefs, and were spared the torch. The glare of the fires against the night sky attracted even more spectators, until an estimated quarter of the city’s 49,000 residents were gathered to watch the Badlands burn to ashes.
It was apparent by now that the mob meant to do nothing less than drive every black man, woman, and child out of Springfield. Black porters and waiters unlucky enough to be spotted by the mobs as they made their way home from work were grabbed and beaten. Black passengers were dragged off streetcars and punished, and black homes outside the path of the larger mob were pelted with bricks and stones by roving bands of whites.
Black families alarmed by the progress of the mobs bundled whatever possessions they could carry and left their homes. Some took refuge in the state arsenal near the statehouse or at nearby Camp Lincoln, where they were offered food, lodging, and military protection. Others simply hid until the mob’s fury spent itself. Some found safety in the homes of their white employers, and a few sought haven in the dense protective underbrush of the city parks.
Other black families took to the road. A stream of refugees clogged the highways and rail lines out of town through the long night and into the morning. Among them was the Clarence Harvey family. Harvey had moved to Springfield from Kentucky only three weeks earlier, expecting to find what he called “an ideal Negro locality in the home of the Great Emancipator.” Instead, he found a mob of threatening whites in his front yard. The Harveys were the only black family on the block, and their neighbors had complained that having “a bunch of insulting Negroes placed in our midst is more than human forbearance can stand.” They had tried persuasion, offers to purchase, and finally threats to force them out, hut Harvey was determined to stay. What his neighbors couldn’t do the mob did for them—the Harveys were rousted from their home in the middle of the night and forced to take refuge in the county jail. They left town the following afternoon on a train headed for St. Louis.
Blacks fleeing the city on foot also met with hostile receptions in the small towns that ringed the capital. Blacks passing through were warned to keep moving or else. In Buffalo, fifteen miles outside Springfield, black travelers were greeted with this sign:
ALL NIGGERS ARE WARNED OUT OF TOWN
BY MONDAY, 12 SHARP!
Buffalo Sharp Shooters
The long flight claimed at least one victim of its own. A black infant perished on the road to Pittsfield, southwest of Springfield. The baby, whose parents had been denied refuge from the elements in the white towns along the route of their march, died of exposure.
* * *
Back in Springfield, at the corner of Ninth and Jefferson Streets, Scott Burton anxiously stood on the porch of the house adjoining his barber shop. A few minutes earlier, upon being warned of the mob’s approach, Burton had ordered his wife and children to pack up a few clothes and some personal treasures and leave. He would stay behind and try to save the house, he told them, and would catch up with them later. Burton armed himself with a shotgun, and, as the rioters swarmed over his shop with lighted torches, let loose a blast of buckshot into the crowd. The mob responded with four bullets, and Burton fell to the floor fatally wounded. His lifeless body was dragged from the porch and paraded through the streets until the rioters hanged the grisly trophy to a tree in front of a saloon four blocks away.
Five hours before Burton’s death, Governor Charles Deneen, who had been surveying the progress of the mobs from his offices in the statehouse, had been told by Sheriff Werner that his local police and militia units were hopelessly outnumbered and powerless to halt the violence. The Governor responded to the crisis by immediately ordering three dozen state militia units to the beleaguered capital. One of these units arrived at the corner of Twelfth and Madison Streets as the rioters were peppering Scott Burton’s body with gunfire. A warning shot fired over their heads failed to move them, so a second order was given to fire into the crowd. Several men fell screaming to the ground, their legs smashed by militiamen’s bullets. The mob scattered before the troops could get off another volley, and Burton, his corpse mutilated by more than forty gunshot wounds, was cut down.
Burton’s death marked the end of Friday night’s violence. By early morning, nearly four thousand newly-arrived troops were keeping the peace, guarding wrecked shops and homes and breaking up congregations of potential troublemakers. Sporadic outbreaks of violence did occur through the rest of the night, but on the whole the city was quiet.
Springfield awoke on Saturday, August 15, to the sight of uniformed cavalry patrolling the streets. Militiamen’s tents were pitched on the courthouse square, in the street in front of the county jail, even on the roomy grounds of the statehouse. The coming of daylight also revealed the awesome extent of the destruction. Entire blocks of the Badlands lay in smoking ruins, with only an occasional brick chimney left standing amid the rubble. The shops along the Levee stared out at the littered streets through shattered windows. Harry Loper’s $5,000 automobile lay in the street, a mass of battered, twisted metal. Mayor Reece, wanting to “keep the lid on” future trouble, ordered all saloons in town closed indefinitely. Springfield had suffered through a terrible ordeal, but the authorities promised that the worst of it was over. The situation, they said, was under control.
* * *
The peace lasted only a few short hours. At 7 o’clock Saturday evening, a small crowd of shirt-sleeved men gathered two blocks east of the square. They walked quickly toward the square itself, talking excitedly among themselves. After a brief stop at a downtown hardware store, they turned toward the statehouse. Their destination was the arsenal, where hundreds of homeless blacks were housed, but they were stopped at the door by a determined military guard. Frustrated in their assault on the arsenal, the crowd hesitated. Then someone yelled, “To Donnegan’s flats!” Led by a small boy in knee pants toting an American flag, the crowd hurried across the statehouse lawn through a militia encampment vacated by patrolling soldiers toward the home of William Donnegan at the corner of Spring and Edwards Streets.
Donnegan, an 80 year old black man who had made a modest fortune for himself importing Southern blacks to work in the homes and shops of pre-Civil War Springfield, was a harmless, rheumatism-ridden old man whose only claim to distinction had been a passing acquaintance with the late Mr. Lincoln. In recent years he had spent most of his time at home tended by Sarah Donnegan, his white wife of thirty-two years.
The mob of 200 men gathered in the street in front of the old man’s house, which stood within sight of the statehouse and the offices of Governor Deneen. “Are there white folks or niggers here?” demanded one of the men. Inside, out of sight from the street, sat Donnegan. He said nothing while his wife went to the door. “There are none but white folks here,” she told them, but one of the group spotted Donnegan from the porch, broke down the front door and grabbed him. “Here he is,” he yelled to his companions outside, “take him out!” Donnegan was knocked unconscious when someone hit him on the head with a brick and carried to a schoolyard across the street. There, hidden from the view of the terrified Mrs. Donnegan, someone slashed the old man’s throat. A length of thin clothes line rope was wrapped around Donnegan’s bleeding neck, and he was hanged to a tree.
Militiamen alerted to the trouble arrived shortly thereafter. The rioters, recalling the lesson of the night before, fled at the soldiers’ approach. Donnegan, who was still breathing faintly, was cut down and rushed to a military hospital station for emergency treatment. It was too late, however, and the old man died the next morning.
Donnegan’s death brought the two-day toll to seven. Two blacks had been murdered by white mobs. Five white men died from assorted accidental wounds received during the rioting. More than a hundred people were hospitalized with wounds inflicted by thrown bricks, beatings, flying glass, and bullets. Forty black homes lay in ruins, others were damaged, and two dozen businesses, most of them black-owned, were closed for repair. Hundreds of black people were homeless, and hundreds more had fled their homes in fear for their lives, some never to return. What Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay was to call her “weakest and lowest hour” had finally passed.
* * *
Sunday, August 16, dawned clear and hot. Many of the city’s tavern owners, bowing to an obligation more compelling than that of the law, disobeyed the mayor’s closing order and opened their doors to the thirsty hordes of visitors who had flocked to the Capital City to see the devastation first-hand. The Register, anxious that the city’s burgeoning tourist trade be well served, hurriedly published a souvenir pamphlet entitled “Photographic Views of the Great Springfield Race War.” The item was hawked for 25 cents. Enterprising hucksters sliced slivers of wood from the trees to which Burton and Donnegan had been hanged and sold them to memento-hungry tourists. Postcards showing scenes of the riot-scarred Badlands were snapped up by tourists and townspeople alike. A group of eighty-five Peorians invited to town by the Chamber of Commerce balked at the scheduled tour of local parks and factories and insisted that their hosts show them instead through the ravaged black neighborhoods.
Not all the visitors to Springfield that week were sightseers, however. William English Walling had rushed to the capital from Chicago upon hearing of the rioting two days before. A writer, socialist, and impassioned advocate of justice for the American Negro, Walling personally surveyed the burnt-out districts on the east side. He talked with ward leaders, newspapermen, policemen, storekeepers—anyone, in fact, who had something to say about why it had all happened.
Walling was aghast at what he found. “The whole awful and menacing truth,” he later wrote in The Independent, “is that a large part of the white population of Lincoln’s home, supported largely by the farmers and miners of the neighboring towns, have initiated a permanent warfare with the Negro race.” He dismissed the notion, often expressed to him by city residents, that the crimes allegedly committed by the local black population were justifiable cause for the violence, or that Springfield’s black population posed any real threat to the economic or political hegemony of the whites. While the Journal was explaining to the world that “it was not in fact the whites’ hatred toward the Negroes, but the Negroes’ own misconduct, general inferiority, or unfitness for free institutions that were at fault,” Walling argued that the true cause of the riots was race hatred, and nothing else.
It was Springfield’s lack of remorse that perhaps troubled Walling more than anything else. “Springfield has no shame,” he wrote. “She hoped the rest of the Negroes might flee.” “What large and powerful body of citizens,” he wanted to know, “is ready to come to their aid?”
In New York City, Mary White Ovington read Walling’s article in The Independent with outrage. A social worker of abolitionist descent, Ovington shared Walling’s shock that lynch mobs should terrorize blacks in Lincoln’s adopted home. At Ovington’s suggestion, Walling arranged a meeting of like-minded friends to consider the formation of a national biracial organization to help right the wrongs suffered by blacks at the hands of lawless whites. The gathering, which took place in January of 1909, ended with an agreement that one of the group, a New York publisher named Oswald Garrison Villard, issue a “call” on the occasion of the centennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth in February of 1909, inviting all those who shared a concern for justice to join them in seeking aid for America’s embattled black population.
Back in Springfield, meanwhile, the authorities were busy preparing for the spate of criminal actions which resulted from the riots. The city’s reputation, no less than her people, had suffered at the hands of the rioters, and Springfield was anxious to settle the score. On Sunday, August 15, local clergymen peppered their sermons with vigorous condemnations of the wrongdoers. Their appeals for the swift punishment of the guilty were echoed the next day when 300 members of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Springfield Businessmen’s Association endorsed a joint resolution calling for stern measures against the mob. Governor Deneen, for his part, had met Sunday night with Frank Hatch, the Sangamon County State’s Attorney, and urged that a special grand jury be impaneled immediately in order that justice might be accomplished with all possible speed. Spurred by this chorus of calls for action, state and county officials bent every available resource to the task of tracking down and bringing to trial what Frank Hatch called “the mob of rats and curs [who] brought the blush of shame to every law-abiding citizen in the county.”
Never in the history of Sangamon County had the lumbering wheels of justice been made to turn more quickly. On the day when William Donnegan was being lowered into his grave, the special grand jury recommended by the Governor was being sworn in to hear riot cases. The twenty-three men who made up this panel endured two solid weeks of enervating August heat as they listened to hundreds of witnesses recount the events of the bloody weekend. When they were done, they had returned a total of 107 indictments against nearly eighty individuals on charges ranging from riot, arson, and larceny to murder. Frank Hatch was optimistic about the prospects for convictions. “No one who is guilty,” he declared confidently, “will be spared.”
But this headlong pursuit of justice, which had been intended to redeem Springfield’s sullied reputation in the eyes of the nation, only added a sordid postscript to the riots. In case after case, riot suspects were brought before the bench and confronted with eyewitness testimony relentlessly pointing to their guilt. Yet the jurors, most of them hard-nosed working men from the outlying county, repeatedly ignored both the evidence and the law and voted for acquittal. Three months of frantic labor by local prosecutors brought forth only the meagerest fruit: of the 107 indictments returned by the special grand jury, the state was able to secure only one conviction, against a man accused of having stolen a black militiaman’s saber. The murderers of Scott Burton and William Donnegan, along with the sackers of the Levee and the arsonists whose torches had leveled the Badlands, escaped unpunished. “The sentiment of the people here,” lamented one of the state’s prosecutors, “seems to be against convicting any of the rioters.”
* * *
On February 12, 1909, six months after Burton and Donnegan had fallen unwilling martyrs to Lincoln’s cause, the nation and the world celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s birth. In New York, Oswald Garrison Villard issued his call to concerned Americans of all races to join him and his friends in a Lincoln Emancipation Conference whose purpose it would be to take up a renewed struggle for the civil and political rights of American blacks. It was this conference that was to give birth to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, a group destined to become the most influential voice for racial justice in the country.
In Springfield, the city of Lincoln was holding its own celebration. The state arsenal, which in August had been jammed with hundreds of black refugees seeking protection from rampaging white mobs, had been decked with flags, potted ferns, and, across one end of the cavernous hall, a massive portrait of the slain President draped in red, white, and blue bunting. A lavish banquet was served to a properly starched crowd who had come to hear the memory of the Kentucky railsplitter extolled by William Jennings Bryan and the British Ambassador to the U.S.
While white Springfield dined in elegance in the stone-turreted arsenal, the city’s black citizens were meeting in a church on the east side of town, where they were holding their own observance in honor of the man who had “made freedom a reality in their lives.” They were meeting there because the prestigious Lincoln Centennial Association, which had organized the arsenal gathering, had refused to allow blacks to attend.
In what proved to be an appropriately ironic ending to an ironic tale, Mrs. Mabel Hallam admitted on September 1, 1908, that George Richardson had not been the man who attacked her on the night of August 13. Later disclosures revealed that her assailant had not been a black man at all, but a white man whom she steadfastly refused to identify. A state-appointed commission looking into the Springfield riots fourteen years later called the events “an outstanding example of the racial bitterness and brutality than can be provoked . . . by deliberate falsehood.” Although she freely confessed that her accusation against Richardson had been a lie, Mabel Hallam was never made to suffer any legal penalty for her actions.
Kate Howard, the rooming house owner who played such a conspicuous role in the violence of Friday, August 14, was indicted by the special grand jury for her part in the murder of Scott Burton. Howard was never brought to trial—she killed herself on August 26 by drinking a smuggled dose of poison while still in custody in the county jail. It was a desperate gesture that in all likelihood was unnecessary; given the subsequent course of the riot prosecutions, there is little reason to believe that she ever would have been convicted of the crime.
Joe James was found guilty of the murder of Clergy Ballard in September. Although his soul was presumably saved by his last-minute conversion to Christianity, his body suffered the fate of all men so judged, and he died at the end of a hangman s noose in the Sangamon County jailyard.
George Richardson returned to Springfield a few days after his exoneration by Mrs. Hallam, where he spent the rest of an apparently uneventful life.
Governor Charles Deneen reaped nearly universal praise for his prompt and forceful response to the violence in Springfield. Deneen was re-elected Governor in 1908, and was nominated for a third term in 1912 but was defeated. In 1924 he was appointed to the U.S. Senate, where he served a single term before retiring to private law practice in Chicago.
As for the black families who suffered most at the hands of the rioters, little is known. Most apparently returned to their homes after spending a few days with friends or relatives in nearby cities; estimates as to the number of black Springfieldians who chose not to return to the capital are difficult to establish, but the number appears to have been small.
Newspaper coverage of the riots was extensive, not only locally but in neighboring and major metropolitan dailies. Despite some factual errors and emotional language, these press accounts comprise the bulk of available information about the events of August, 1908. The following Springfield newspapers served as the principal source for this account: Illinois State Journal; Illinois State Register; Springfield News; Springfield Record; and Springfield Forum. Additional facts were culled from the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph, Peoria Herald-Transcript, Joliet Weekly News, Chicago Record-Herald, Chicago Daily Tribune, and New York Times.
An important and influential eyewitness account is William English Walling, “Race War in the North,” The Independent, LXV (September 3, 1908), pp. 529-34. The riot is chronicled briefly from a half-century’s vantage point in James L. Crouthamel, “The Springfield, Illinois Race Riot of 1908,” Journal of Negro History, XLV (July, 1960), pp. 164–181.
A variety of books and articles provided valuable background information concerning the race relations, politics, and economy of pre-riot Springfield. Chief among them are:
Paul M. Angle, Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln's Springfield (Chicago: Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, 1971)
W. T. Casey (ed.), Directory of Sangamon County’s Colored Citizens (Springfield: Springfield Directory Co., 1926)
Daniel Elazar, Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1970)
“The So-Called Race Riot at Springfield, Illinois,” Charities and Commons (September 19, 1908), pp. 709–11.
Elliott M. Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis July 2, 1917 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964)
William M. Tuttle, Jr., Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (New York: Atheneum, 1970)
Other sources consulted in the preparation of this narrative include:
Biennial Report of the Adjutant General of Illinois to the Governor and Commander-in-Chief 1907–1908 (Springfield: State of Illinois, 1909)
Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago:A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922)
Charles Flint Kellogg, NAACP: A History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Vol. I 1909–1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967)
Mary White Ovington, How the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Began (New York: NAACP, 1914)
Springfield City Directory (1906, 1908, 1911, 1917)
The illustrations which appear in this book were taken from the Matthias Collection of the Illinois State Historical Library, Photographic Views of the Great Springfield Race War (Springfield: Illinois State Register, 1908), and the pages of the Chicago Daily Tribune. The cover illustration is from a cartoon by John McCutcheon which first appeared on the front page of the Chicago Sunday Tribune of August 16, 1908. ●