Logo Click BACK to return to Basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Rebecca

Rebecca Archive

Cool Links
The Springfield Race Riot of 1908



Newspaper Instigates! Picture Postcards Retell Riot: Part I

We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
Click here to have future picks e-mailed to you!

the smoldering ruins of

"Something was ready to blow that summer," Jim Woodruff tells me as we examine the black and white photographs and news clippings he's laid out on a card table in his Springfield studio. We are talking about the Springfield, IL Race Riots of 1908, and Jim is wowing me with his grandmother's memories of 92 years ago. Jim's family is white. His grandmother was 14 years old that chaotic summer, and her teenage memories now belong to Jim in the way that oral histories do.

Jim Woodruff first heard of the Race Riots from his grandma, and has listened eagerly to local stories ever since.

As so often happens in my work with the Odyssey, I know nothing about the Race Riots before I begin my research for this dispatch. Although I grew up in Illinois and was indoctrinated with the treasured history of our Honest Abe and the grizzly "Great" Chicago Fire, the Race Riots were not part of my curriculum. So, it is a history that I only now start to understand as I spend hours piecing the story together. I begin my research in the archives of the state and county historic libraries, and combine those accounts with the treasure of Jim's grandmother's memory. What I learn shocks me, and horrifies me, as again, so often happens in my work with the Odyssey.

"Who is this?" I ask, picking up a newspaper picture of a young white woman. (She's looking typically 1900s stuffy in her stiff, high collared, and white blouse.) "That's Mabel Hallam," he answers. Mabel's charges of rape against a local black man were the breaking point that enraged the white community on the sweltering 14th of August, 1908.


Unfortunately, due to the biased, judgmental reporting from the local paper, the accused, a black man named George Robinson, was determined guilty by the community before being given a chance to prove his innocence. Robinson was thrown in jail, but the townspeople wouldn't wait for a trial. They wanted immediate payback for a crime the paper called "one of the greatest outrages that ever happened in Springfield." So as Springfield's white men got off work Friday evening, they cashed in their paychecks, drank some alcohol, and headed to the jailhouse to see about a lynching.

To give Mabel Hallam sole credit for inciting the riot, however, is to ignore the issues that had been simmering all summer.

In 1908, Springfield was a mess. Jim describes the "red light district" of the city (a.k.a. - "the levee") by saying "there was shootin' and killin' and fightin' and drinkin'," which he remembers continued, to some extent, until the 1970's. Brothels and gambling houses added to the terror of the levee, where both whites and blacks frequented, but blacks mostly lived. People were upset about the embarrassment of the levee, which they blamed on the black citizens. And they were upset about their own low wages and lack of jobs, which they also blamed on the "high" number of blacks (6.5% of the total population of Springfield) that had moved into an area of town named the "badlands" around the turn of the century.

And then, on top of all of that, there was the issue of a murder. In July, a "respected [white] mining engineer" had been cut to death by a razor when he chased a burglar (who happened to be black) out of his home. Joe James, a black man, was charged with the murder, and awaited trial in the same jail that George Robinson was brought to.

This brings us back to the hot Friday evening in August when the mob surrounded the jailhouse to bring about their own version of justice. The Illinois Register had urged that "no effort be spared to find the black viper and to force appropriate punishment," for Mabel's rape, and the mob seemed eager to comply. The police knew they'd have two dead black men on their hands if they didn't do something quickly, so after sounding a false fire alarm as a diversion, they slipped Joe James and George Robinson out the back door and into a waiting car which drove them safely out of town. When the mob learned that they had been duped, their anger broiled. It was time for somebody, anybody, to pay for something... anything!

Harry Loper, a white businessman who owned a local restaurant, was the first to fill that need. Loper had used his car to speed the two black prisoners away from the jail, and away from the angry mob. When he returned, the mob, led by local resident and businesswoman Kate Howard, turned on him. They set upon his car with a fury that turned the elegant auto into a twisted junk heap in minutes.

Today, a Hardee's stands on the site of Loper's restaurant

I touch the photograph of a hideously mangled car gingerly, as if any pressure will crumble the barely-recognizable knots of metal into dust. "That car was worth $5000" Jim explains. This was a fortune in 1908, but that certainly didn't stop the mob from demolishing it. Loper's restaurant was next -- completely devastated as well. And so on, as the destruction continued through the Jewish and black owned businesses to "the Badlands," where entire blocks of "one room hovels and rough board shacks" were set on fire. When firefighters tried to do their job, rioters cut through their hoses. The fires only stopped when there was nothing left to consume.

Jim's grandma's family was told to tie a white sheet in front of their house as a symbol that they were white, so that the mob would leave them alone. They did, and it saved their house. But while the nearby houses of black residents burned to the ground, Jim's grandma could hear the rioters cry out encouragement to one another in the streets:

"Curse the day that Lincoln freed the niggers!" and "Abe Lincoln brought 'em to Springfield and we'll run 'em out!"

Marking the spot where the mob stopped to buy rope for Donnegan's lynching

According to author Roberta Senechal, "during two days of violence, white rioters gutted the capitol's black business district, left blocks of black homes in smoldering ruins, and lynched two innocent black men," killing Scott Burton and William Donnegan. These black men were dragged from their homes, beaten, tied to a tree, and then their bodies were used as target practice. Author James Krohe Jr. writes that the goal of the mob was clear: they wanted to "drive every black man, woman and child out of Springfield." Bricks were picked up from the street and hurled through black-owned store windows and at unlucky blacks, who if caught, were beaten severely. The mob stole guns and ammunition from a store they had pillaged, and used them liberally. In fact, "four whites died from stray bullets that night and scores more were injured before several thousand state militia finally imposed an uneasy peace on the city."

The rioting continued until the state militia arrived

We are sorting through dozens of photographs and postcards that document the aftermath of the riots, and I am shocked by what I see, but Jim tells me that many more images of the riots are missing. "Ordered by the Governor," he emphasizes, the Illinois National Guard visited Springfield's seven daily newspapers in the days after the riot. They took all of the glass-plate negatives, engravings and prints that had been made of the Riots and destroyed them. Hmmm…this sounded to me like the Governor was trying to erase the embarrassing disaster that happened right under his nose, and in the state capitol no less! Jim adds another reason for the censorship. The 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth was coming up in less than a year. All eyes would be on Springfield, the town made famous by Lincoln's law-and-politic-filled years there. The Governor certainly didn't want this blemish on the hometown of "the Great Emancipator," in the months just before his grand birthday celebration, so he tried to destroy the evidence!


Teenagers Remembered...

I ask Jim how he still has a good number of riot photographs to study today. Well, in the twisted way that luck tends to work, the local papers in 1908 had immediately made postcards out of several of the photographs, which the locals bought eagerly to send to family and friends boasting of "what happens to Negroes in Springfield." Jim tells me that the Governor ordered the post office not to send those postcards, but of course, some of them got through. Although it's pretty sick that the newspaper was profiting off the tragedy in Springfield, we are thankful that they did, because these postcards are the best source we have of images of the riots today.


Click here to continue with Part II of "Picture Postcards Retell Riot"...




Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Strung up, cut up, and set on fire
Stephen - "I'm African! No, I'm American! No, I'm African!" No, I'm American!
Stephanie - Poetry to stir the soul and inspire a nation
Nick - How the government ground down a community
Making A Difference - If you are dark of skin, you are guilty as sin
Stephen - Celebrating your heritage: the Black Renaissance
Irene - The largest racial killings in American history
Stephanie - Two nations, one country