Archive for October, 2009

NAACP’s Origin: 1908 Race Riot in Lincoln’s Home Town

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Illinois Mobs Kill and Burn

Foiled in Attempt to Lynch Two Negroes, Angry Whites Start Destructive Raid

Troops Bring Gatling Gun

Mob Sets Fire to Negro District and Refuses to Allow Fire Department to Work

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. Aug. 15 — Race riots are raging here as the result of an attempt to lynch two negro prisoners in the county jail. [ New York Times ]

Those are the headlines and opening sentence of a New York Times account published on August 15, 1908, of a race riot in the home town of Abraham Lincoln, the sainted president who practiced law in an office that overlooked the Old Statehouse. It was at that same building, 100 years later, where Lincoln’s would-be successor, a young Barack Obama, announced his campaign for the presidency. But, in 1908 that very area had been full of a seething white mob.

Who could have imagined it? A ‘race riot’ in Lincoln’s home town?

This was no Watts or Detroit. No, this was a white man’s riot. At one point, according to the New York Times’ account, “the sky over the east end of Springfield was aglow.”

I know that ‘east end’ of Springfield — the ‘end’ Springfield residents now call the East Side — because I was born and raised in Springfield. For as long as I can remember, the East Side was ‘the black side’ of Springfield, the ‘other side of the tracks’ just beyond Ninth Street. And it was in that part of town, the Times reporter wrote 101 years ago, where a mob roamed, killing blacks and destroying their homes and businesses.

How did this all begin?

On the hot summer evening of August 13, 1908, a white woman, Mabel Hallam, who lived on Springfield’s north side, claimed she’d been raped by a black man. Subsequently an African-American construction worker, George Richardson, was identified by Hallam, whom she told “I believe that you are the man and that you will have to prove that you are not.” [ Something So Horrible, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, 2008 ]

Richardson said, “Before God, I am innocent of this crime. I can explain her identification of me only by the theory that all coons look alike to her.”

According to the Lincoln Presidential Library account, “Richardson was a handsome, dark-skinned man, the well-spoken grandson one of Springfield’s most prominent Blacks, William Florville, who had been Abraham Lincoln’s barber.”

Richardson was taken to the county jail, where another black prisoner, arrested a month earlier in a different case, resided.

The next morning the city opened its newspaper, The Illinois State Journal, to find this screaming headline: “DRAGGED FROM HER BED AND OUTRAGED BY NEGRO.”

Aflame with the alleged ‘violation of a white woman by a black man’ — the ruse concocted to lynch untold numbers of black men over the history of this nation — an angry mob formed at the jail, demanding the sheriff to release his two black prisoners, so the mob could lynch them both.

Instead the sheriff spirited the two out of town for their protection, and the riot began in full force.

One of those killed in the furious mayhem was a black barber named Scott Burton, who faced the mob in his shop doorway. Someone shot and killed Burton “and his body was paraded from his porch to a place several blocks away where it was hanged from a tree outside a saloon. Burton’s corpse became the symbol of the mob’s hatred of blacks and was riddled by bullets.”

At the end of the second day of rioting, the mob, frustrated in its attempt to roust other black Springfieldians from under militia protection at the state arsenal, marched across the Capitol grounds, where the militia was encamped, to the home of 80 year-old William Donnegan, a successful businessman. Donnegan came out of his house - two blocks from the Capitol - to confront the crowd of a dozen men, who attacked him, cut his throat and used clothesline rope to lynch Donnegan to a small tree standing in a school yard across the street from his home. He was cut down, still alive, by members of the militia, whose act proved too late to save Donnegan’s life.

And how did State Journal, Springfield’s leading newspaper, headline its day-after, post-riot account? Well, it tells you a lot about what Springfield was in 1908, and what, eerily, still lurks there today: “Frenzied Mob Sweeps City, Wreaking Bloody Vengeance For Negro’s Heinous Crime.”

A ‘crime’ that had never occurred.

“Two weeks after the riot, Mabel Hallam would confess to the grand jury that her story of rape by a Black man was a lie. … But that Friday morning, August 14, her cry set the mob in motion and evoked death, destruction and untold hardship for which Hallam was never held accountable.”

Something positive did come of this horrific event: the NAACP was founded less than six months later in New York on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, February 12, 1909. Last year at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the Association commemorated its link to that terrible summer of 1908, and included a copy of William English Walling’s chilling, on-the-scene account. [ The Independent - 1908 ]

And what of Springfield today, 100 years after the founding of the NAACP, 101 years after the riot itself?

The State Journal-Register (successor to the State Journal) produced a special edition to commemorate the riot’s 100th anniversary on August 14, 2008. But below the online story in the ‘comments’ section, the ugliness of 1908 raised its head in the form of two anonymous comments:

‘tweetybird’ wrote:

“this is a total waste 0f time why keep bringing up the bad stuff? Nobody living now was involved in that. Its past. Leave it there. The article states its not forgotten. Well its not forgotten because this paper keeps shoving it down our throats. I’m tired of hearing about it. drop the subject and leave it in the past where it belongs.”

Following tweety’s comment, ‘Iremember’ wrote:

I am in my 70’s. I was born and raised in a small town outside of Springfield. When the riot was still fresh on the minds of many, I recall folks stating that one of main reasons for the riot was the black’s ‘push day.’ On one day of the week (I think it was Thursday, but am not sure), groups of blacks would literally walk down the sidewalk in mass pushing everybody — in this instance, whites — out of their way. That tactic and the supposed rape I guess set the white folks off. Whether ‘push day’ is true or not, and I am of the belief it occurred, it is part of local lore, and I am disappointed the JR didn’t do a better job of researching and reporting the complete story of the riot.”

Has the election of Barack Obama changed the thinking of these two? You have to wonder. Springfield remains a racially tense town.

Just a little more than two months ago in Springfield, a noose was hung in the work area used by a black employee of the city’s power and light utility.

The apparent target of the noose hanging, Mike Williams, an African-American, pleaded to the Springfield City Council,

“So, I beg of you, as this ground starts to shake and the rumble is coming, to please don’t just ignore this, don’t sweep this under the rug,” Williams said. “Adopt a no-tolerance policy immediately that says if you are caught or if you admit jokingly, unintentionally or whatever it may be that you committed such acts, that you will be terminated immediately.”

After Williams spoke, Archie Lawrence, president of the Springfield Branch of the NAACP, said that hanging a noose is “the ultimate insult.”

“The only thing that’s worse than hanging a noose is hanging itself,” he said, adding that he finds it impossible “to believe that anyone would hang a noose did not have the intent to send a message that black people are not welcome in this town, that black people did not deserve to perform their job without any type of threat or intimidation.”

Following a ‘review’ of the incident by the Mayor of Springfield and the Sangamon County State’s Attorney, the names of those who placed the noose were made public: one was the brother of the mayor’s former wife, and the other a nephew of the city human resource director, himself a well-known former high school coach.

The punishment – meted two months later – for the heinous act committed by these well-connected city employees in Abraham Lincoln’s home town: 60-day unpaid suspensions in scheduled five-day increments. This unusual method of discipline was taken, according to the city utility’s spokesperson, “in order to not adversely affect the operations of those departments and avoid overtime.”

At an October 7 secret meeting, the city’s civil service commission declined to intervene, yet one member questioned the suspensions as a “a new level of discipline … that basically keeps people from being terminated.”

And so it goes in the Land of Lincoln.