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Springfield Race Riot site moves closer to becoming part of the National Park Service

Homes at 12th Street and Mason Street burned during the 1908 Springfield Race Riot.
Cities and Towns collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Homes at 12th Street and Mason Street burned during the 1908 Springfield Race Riot.

The National Park Service has completed an evaluation of the archaeological site associated with the 1908 Springfield Race Riot and determined it meets the criteria to become part of the park system. Congress would need to sign off for that to happen.

The Special Resource Study examined the site near Madison Street and the 10th Street Rail Corridor, and other sites associated with the Springfield Race Riot in the state.

The race riot site that was located near the 10th Street railroad tracks and Madison Street, was unearthed in 2014 during construction of the Springfield Rail Improvements Project. Archaeologists discovered the former foundations of seven homes within the right-of-way required for the rail corridor.

Further investigation revealed that five of these foundations were homes that were burned during the 1908 race riot. This discovery resulted in these homes being eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places because their lack of disturbance since 1908 preserved the integrity of the structures. Also, the homes were originally built in the mid-1840s adding to their historic significance.

During the Race Riot, a mob of white residents murdered at least six Black Americans, burned Black homes and businesses and attacked hundreds of residents for no other reason than the color of their skin.

According to the official account of what took place, on the evening of August 14, 1908, after being accused of unrelated sexual assault and murder crimes, two Black men were sitting in jail. Tension was rising, as a large mob of about 5,000 white people were gathering outside, trying to take matters into their own hands. They were demanding the release of both George Richardson and Joe James.

George, who was accused of raping a white woman and Joe, who was accused of murdering a white man. As the police were sensing danger, the county sheriff, with help from Harry Loper, a white business owner, secretly removed the two prisoners through the back door and put them on a train that transported them to another jail in Bloomington, IL. Once the mob learned of this move, they erupted in mass racial violence.

Spreading out, the mob headed towards the Black neighborhoods. Looting and damaging Black owned business, destroying their homes, and eventually lynching two important members of the black community, Scott Burton and William Donegan. Springfield endured racial violence for days, until Illinois Governor, Charles Deneen called the Illinois National Guard to bring the riots under control.

The nation was shocked by the racial violence that occurred and the irony of it happening in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, if it could happen in Springfield, it could happen anywhere, activists believed.

As a result, many died including both black and white residents. Dozens of Black owned homes and business were burned to the ground, causing property damage of over $150,000, a large cost in 1908. These events caused thousands of the Black residents to pack up their families and move out of Springfield, some to never return.

Of the two accused Black men, who were the main focus of the racial violence, Joe James was eventually tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of Clergy Ballard. George Richardson was set free after his accuser, Mabel Hallam recanted her story.

The riot was a catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“The 1908 Springfield Race Riot was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history,” said NPS Director Chuck Sams. “That day of horrific
anti-Black violence resulted in a call to action and spurred a movement dedicated to fighting for civil rights. Preserving and
commemorating this site would contribute to the National Park Service's commitment to recognizing the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the sacrifices made by those who fought against discrimination and segregation.”

The City of Springfield has partnered with, NPS, Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) and the Springfield NAACP to support the study and overall project for multiple years.

The study examined the remains of the homes burned during the 1908 Springfield Race Riot and other sites and buildings around Springfield that played an important role in the riot and its aftermath.

In a letter to congress, Shannon Estenoz, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, wrote the archeological site meets all the factors considered under the analysis of feasibility. The letter said:

* The site is of sufficient size and appropriate configuration to ensure sustainable resource protection and visitor access.

* Property owners and the public have demonstrated strong support for a potential designation. Current land ownership patterns, economic and socioeconomic impacts, and potential threats to the resources do not appear to preclude the study area from potentially becoming a new unit of the national park system.

* The property owners have documented their intent to donate property in support of a potential designation.

* The NPS evaluated a smaller and larger footprint and determined that proper management of the site can be fulfilled reasonably in either option. The site would require new infrastructure to support visitation and resource protection, but the infrastructure is expected to be limited and could be scaled to meet visitor needs, available space, and funding.

If approved, an outdoor memorial commemorating the 1908 Race Riot would be erected on Madison Street near the railroad tracks between 9th and 11th streets, where the foundations of the five homes remain after burning down in the riot. HSHS has donated an additional 86,000 square feet of land to create parking for the project outside of the HSHS St. John’s Women and Children’s Clinic.

The study concluded that there are two options, a smaller and a larger boundary, in which the NPS could reasonably manage the site and meet resource protection and visitor experience objectives.

"There is a high potential for partnerships which may be a factor in the level to which additional visitor service can be provided", Estenoz wrote.

"The larger boundary would likely be the most effective and efficient alternative if the site were managed in a collaborative manner with a robust group of partners. In this case, the expanded area would allow for a wider range of visitor experiences and services. A smaller boundary would likely be the most effective and efficient alternative if partnerships were less viable or if it was determined that most visitor services and experiences could be addressed off-site."

“The City of Springfield is pleased to receive the news the National Park Service has delivered the 1908 Race Riot Special Resource Study to the U. S. Congress,” said Mayor Misty Buscher. “The results of the study further reiterates the historical significance the 1908 Race Riot had on not only on our community, but our country. The City of Springfield looks forward to working with all our partners to continue to move project forward to ultimately commemorate and preserve the memory of the events of August 14, 1908.”

“Hospital Sisters Health System and HSHS St. John's Hospital is proud to support such an impactful project that could become a national attraction, as well as a powerful and important tool in anti-racism education, said Damond Boatwright, HSHS President and Chief Executive Officer. “Through HSHS' partnership, we continue to show our commitment to educating our community about what happened on that heart-breaking day.”

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