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Springfield, Ill., Marks Centenary Of Riots

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The narrative of race in America returns again and again to one Midwestern city: Springfield, Illinois. It's the adopted hometown of Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama announced his run for the presidency there. But it's also lesser known for a horrible episode from 100 years ago: a race riot in 1908 that left several people dead and gave rise to the NAACP. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: I'm standing at the intersection of Seventh and Jefferson in the historic business district of Springfield, not far from Abraham Lincoln's home.

Ms. KATHERINE HARRIS (Head Librarian, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library): This is the first marker, site of the old county jail.

CORLEY: Katherine Harris, the head librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, is standing next to one of several markers in the area that tell the story of the 1908 riot, tracing its path of destruction and violence.

Ms. HARRIS: What precipitated the riot really had its genesis before. A white engineer had been murdered. His name was Clergy Ballard.

CORLEY: That was in July, and Joe James, the black man accused of killing Ballard, was in the county jail awaiting trial. In August, things got more tense when another black man was jailed after a white woman claimed he raped her. A large crowd of whites wanted to take matters into their own hands, and on August 14th, they gathered at the jail. The sheriff, fearful of violence, secretly took the two prisoners to another jail about 60 miles away.

Ms. HARRIS: When the people discovered that they had been duped, all hell broke loose.

CORLEY: In 1908, about 2,500 African-Americans lived in Springfield, about 5 percent of the town's population. With the prisoners gone, the mob turned its fury on areas where blacks lived and worked. Homes were torched, black-owned businesses ravaged. Many blacks fled. Others fought back, and Scott Burton, an African-American barber who stayed behind to protect his home, was lynched.

Ms. HARRIS: What was distressing, even more so, about being lynched was they mutilated his body - shot it, beat it. It must have been just an awful sight.

CORLEY: By the next day, the mob had grown in size. The National Guard was dispatched. Even so, the mob killed another man. William Donnegan was an elderly black shoemaker who lived with his white wife. At least seven people died in all, including a black infant from exposure, and several white men who were killed by gunshots. Hundreds were injured, and damage in the city totaled - by today's standards - nearly $3 million.

Mr. KENNETH PAGE (Director, NAACP of Springfield, Illinois): You know, the riots, it was not uncommon for them to happen, but it happened in Lincoln's hometown. And that's what really caught people off guard, because this has always been a safe place for blacks, was Springfield. So it actually wasn't at that time.

CORLEY: Kenneth Page is the head of the NAACP in Springfield, and it was the riot, he says, which sparked the creation of the civil rights organization, after journalist William English Walling asked in 1908 who would come to the aid of African-Americans under siege. Nelson Rivers, the national chief of the NAACP's field operations, says social activist Mary White Ovington and two others met in New York to discuss solutions. And from that small meeting, the NAACP would grow to play a role in nearly every major civil rights battle in the country.

Mr. NELSON RIVERS (National Chief, Field Operations, NAACP): And who would have thought that an organization that never had a $50 million budget, never had a million members and never had to resort to violence has been able to persevere and change America the way it has? And so Springfield reminds us that just because you lose or because something tragic happened does not have to define your future.

CORLEY: Now Springfield is recognizing the eruption that scarred the city 100 years ago, and is urging the world to do so, too.

Mayor TIMOTHY DAVLIN (Springfield, Illinois): This was part of our history, and we're not running away from it.

CORLEY: Springfield's Mayor Timothy Davlin has issued a formal apology for the days of terror that took place in Springfield.

Mayor DAVLIN: It's not going to make things right after a hundred years. I think it's just - it is the right thing to do.

CORLEY: Events commemorating the riot continue in Springfield, and a statue depicting the devastation of the town will sit directly across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Joe James, the man accused of killing the white railroad engineer in 1908, was executed. The prisoner who had been charged with rape was released from jail after his accuser admitted she lied. More than 100 indictments for rioting, arson, larceny and murder were issued, but there was only one conviction - a man who stole a military saber was found guilty of petty larceny.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.