What riot? Springfield still won’t talk about race
September 20, 1990
Springfield’s signal historical event, apart from the residency of Abraham Lincoln, was a race riot. In spite of that—or maybe because of it—the city’s debate about racism has never been frank or sophisticated. In this, the capital city is hardly alone in Illinois.
I tried in this piece to be at least frank. Rereading this piece, I wondered whether it would even be printed today without triggering a hailstorm of social media abuse. I’ve reluctantly emended the text to protect today’s more delicate readers, although I must say that I have yet to hear from the word vigilantes how a society can have a debate on any topic without talking about it out loud.
I read Rebecca Senechal's fine new book about the 1908 Springfield race riots—Sociogenesis of a Race Riot—with both excitement and embarrassment. In 1973 I wrote a summary account of those grim events that was published by the Sangamon County Historical Society. The pamphlet had value as the only contemporary account of the riots available to an audience that was eager to know about them, but it turns out to have been uninformed in its estimations of the causes of the violence. "Racism" was the obvious explanation. But which kind? Derived from what grievances? Why was it expressed in this particular place, and in that particular way?
Senechal provides plausible answers to the kinds of questions Springfield has always had trouble even asking. For example, a local judge, in explaining his refusal that summer to grant a change of venue to riot defendants, delivered an opinion so at odds with reality as to suggest dementia had it not come from one of that guild from whom nonsense spouts like water from a fountain. "In no county of the state," the judge intoned, "does so little prejudice exist against the colored race as in the county of Sangamon."
No doubt that seemed true enough in the Springfield in which that judge resided. No doubt he and his neighbors tipped their cleaning women and yard men generously at Christmas; no doubt they chided their friends for using words like "n----r." Senechal explains that such affluent Springfieldians as a class at first legitimated the violence as a cure for a serious civic disease whose symptom they saw as black lawlessness. The lynchings that resulted were shocking proof that moral reform was not on the agenda of the town's working class thugs; the city's establishment deplored the crimes but remained blind to the motive.
By today's standards, the racism in 1908 Springfield was breathtakingly blatant. There were companies black people could not work at, stores they could not shop at, theaters they could not sit in, schools they could not go to, neighborhoods they dare not walk through. It would be nice to think that things have changed, but the Springfield Senechal describes sounds sadly familiar.
To be sure, the daily press is incomparably more restrained in its approach to racial issues (including hiring, unfortunately). The public schools are finally desegregated, giving Springfield's poorer African-American kids a chance to fail in better schools than before. The city government has been reformed too, although it is unclear whether being ignored by a council of ten members is twice as good as being ignored by a council of five members.
Unofficial Springfield, however, remains scandalized by black violence and drug use, even if the shift of the "levee" from East Washington Street to the Hay Homes and Evergreen Terrace has made them less visible. Fear of black crime among whites remains exaggerated; during the six and a half years I lived at Fourteenth and Monroe, the only crime problem I suffered was finding whites from the west side brave enough to house-sit for me.
Today as in 1908, affluent Springfieldians of all colors live far away from the disorder of the city's poorer neighborhoods. Declining housing values, driven substantially by fears of racial change, have caused real rents to drop in the central city. Marginal types have moved into once-privileged precincts while a whole new Springfield is being built by the middle class to the west.
This is a complex social change and, like the one that Springfield went through eighty years ago, it is widely misunderstood. One of Senechal's salient findings was how strongly race attitudes are shaped by class, or rather how race issues can be muddled by-class attitudes. The local opposition to scattered site public housing is widely understood (even by many of the opponents themselves) as racially motivated. A few opponents have tried to distinguish between people of a lower class—identifiable by a set of behaviors—and people off a lower caste such as African-Americans, who are identifiable by their skins. That distinction is widely made by black people about other blacks, but whites who make it are usually dismissed as rationalizers or closet racists.
In fact the U.S. housing system is even more strictly segregated by class than it is by race, and property values reflect that. We lack a public vocabulary with which to discuss class, however; worse, our thinking about race is muddled by class and our thinking about class is muddled by race. Such problems as drug use, violence, and teen pregnancy—common to the poor and uneducated of all colors—are inaccurately understood by most whites as "black problems."
What could be called the black man's burden takes the form of what Senechal calls the "widespread anxieties Americans share about their cities...having to do with the existence of poverty, crime, and disorder." That so many of the affluent families that are fleeing west of MacArthur are black suggests that "racial change" is a misnomer, and that it is class change that people really fear, but neither our press nor our politicians are capable of such careful distinctions.
It is usually the educated who make speeches in favor of diversity, but it is usually the poor who must figure out how to make it work. Among people crowded together on the margins of society, color still matters, if only because it is often the only claim to status lower class whites can make. Last week a teenager riding a bicycle on the near north side of Springfield reportedly shouted what was described only as a racial remark at a group of six men. Apparently he was viciously beaten and stabbed by them and abandoned in a garbage dumpster on North Seventh Street. At last report the victim was in a coma from which he was given only a one in a thousand chance of recovering.
Incidents less brutal have touched off anti-black riots in other cities in the past. Why not this one? Part of the reason may be the circumspect, almost timid way the local daily handled the story. The State journal-Register ran it on page seven, and while it identified the victim as white, the race of his alleged attackers was not even hinted at.
Perhaps more to the point, the incident lacked several of the ingredients now recognized to be as essential to white rage as kindling is to a fire. The victim was not a native to the city, he was male, and (assuming sketchy accounts are correct) he probably provoked his attackers. Nor did the beating happen in a "nice" part of town where it might have alarmed whites anxious about violations of a racial status quo which is indifferent to violence as long as it occurs in "their" neighborhoods.
Contemplating why a riot didn't happen this time makes one realize how easy it would be, even today, for one to happen next time. Senechal's book is being marketed as history, but it ought to be read as journalism. □
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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."
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.
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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture