Uncovering & Commemorating Springfield’s 1908 Race Riot
Kathryn Harris remembers coming across a manila folder, tucked away in a filing cabinet. It was the seventies, and she was working at Springfield’s public Lincoln Library at the time. The newspaper clippings inside told a story of a city in flames, of lynchings and death — something she hadn’t remembered hearing before.
It unfolded in 1908 — 43 years after Abraham Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator,” and Springfield’s most beloved former occupant, had died.
On August 14, tensions in the city rose. Two black men sat in jail, charged with unrelated crimes — a rape and a murder, both against white people. (The rape accusation was later recanted.) A white mob gathered — they wanted vigilante justice.
In an effort to keep the men safe, police took both out of the jail and put them on a train to one in a nearby town. Upon hearing this, the mob erupted in violence. Buildings were destroyed. People were injured. Two black men were lynched.
Harris, who went on to head the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and the Abraham Lincoln Association among many other roles, has made it her job to help uncover and piece together this history and tell others about it. It had a lasting impact on the city she now calls home.
“Many African Americans left Springfield. They headed to St. Louis or Peoria or Bloomington, and many of those folks never came back,” said Harris.
Back in 1908, people across the nation were shocked to hear of the violence in Springfield. It was the catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.) And yet, ask any Springfield resident today what they know about the riots, and the answer is still likely to be nothing, says Harris.
Still, things have changed since the 1970s when she first came across the folder. The NAACP commissioned Peoria artist Preston Jackson to create a sculpture commemorating the 100th year since the riots, which some prefer to call a “massacre.” It sits directly across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield’s downtown. Harris says now, she makes it a point to take children there to help explain this facet of history.
Back in the early nineties, two young girls who were students at Springfield’s Iles Elementary School went to the city council and urged that the riots be better commemorated. That led to the placement of eight markers throughout the city, along the path the mob went. They point out where buildings burned down all those years ago. “I was always touched by that, that these were children that did this, not adults,” said Harris.
Elizabeth Buchta’s introduction to the history of the race riots came by way of those markers. Buchta is the communications manager for the Lincoln Library Harris once worked at. “I am grateful for (those girls), and also the way that sometimes children are able to accomplish things that adults can’t because of too much discussion or too many points of view,” said Buchta.
Harris and Buchta will be helping host an event at the public Lincoln Library (326 S 7th St.) on Tuesday August, 14th — the same day the riots erupted 110 years ago. A documentary about the events will be screened, and a librarian from the Sangamon Valley Collection will give a presentation about efforts to memorialize them, followed by a short discussion. If you can’t make it to the screening, you can watch the documentary here:
Buchta says in today’s political climate, talking about racism and the complicated histories that often go unexposed or explored is crucial. “There’s plenty that people are not seeing in Springfield and in this country,” said Buchta. Still, she says she finds hope in the efforts to keep talks about the riots going. “I think just being allowed the privilege to hear the stories of people who have suffered and who have gone up against great odds is inspiring and empowers us all to be peacemakers and to see something that maybe isn’t totally obvious right from the surface,” said Buchta.
In the coming weeks, multiple events will commemorate the 1908 race riots. At the same time, the state will be celebrating its bicentennial year. Illinois Newsroom will bring you more about this topic as these efforts unfold. For more information about the “Springfield Had No Shame” screening and discussion event happening on Tuesday August 14th, click here.
Other events that evening are listed in the flyer below: