History of the Springfield 1908 Race Riot | Springfield, Illinois | Visit Springfield

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Springfield Illinois is a city rich in African American history, which helped shape Springfield, and the nation, as we know it. To share this story, we are traveling back to August 1908, when the Springfield 1908 Race Riot started. Springfield residents woke on August 14 unprepared for what was about to happen and the change that was coming as a nation.

History of what occurred in 48 hours

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.

Six months later, heavily influenced by the Springfield 1908 Race Riot and it being the final tipping point, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was created. This happened on February 12, 1909, which was the centennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In 1910, the NAACP established its national office in New York City and has played a major role in history ever since. The vision of the NAACP is to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race.

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Springfield Monuments in remembrance of this tragic event in our history

Acts of Intolerance Sculpture

Acclaimed artist Preston Jackson’s sculpture commemorates the Springfield 1908 Race Riot. His inspiration came from images he saw of two charred chimneys, standing in smoldering rubble from burned out buildings. Sculpted in the “chimneys” is breathtaking detail that tells the story of the brutal 48 hours in Springfield’s history. More info click here

1908 Race Riot Mural

A multi-media mural that captures the events of the Springfield 1908 Race Riot and also highlights key individuals, including individuals that were part of the establishment of the NAACP. Along with the story of the riots itself, it also tells the story of the establishment of the NAACP. Along with visual storytelling, it has a beautiful centerpiece done by acclaimed artist Preston Jackson, showing the Hospital Sisters caring for the victims of the Race Riot. Just outside is a beautiful sculpture of a dove, by Gianfranco Tassara, that represents peace and healing in commemorating of the race riots. HSHS St. John's Hospital Women & Children's Clinic is just north of the location of a recently discovered foundation of homes that were burned during the riot. More info click here

City of Springfield 1908 Race Riot Walking Tour

Embark on a self-guided historic and emotional filled journey through the events that occurred during the Race Riot. Start the journey on the corner of 7th and Jefferson, the old county jail site. The entire story is told in a series of markers placed along the path of the destruction in downtown Springfield. More info click here