Springfield race riot of 1908
The Springfield race riot of 1908 was a mass civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois, USA on August 14, 1908, sparked by the transfer of two African American prisoners out of the city jail by the county sheriff. The men were suspects in crimes against whites: the murder of Clergy Ballard and rape of Mabel Hallam. A white mob formed, rioting in black neighborhoods, where they destroyed and burned many black-owned businesses and homes, and killed black citizens.
By the end of the riot the next day, the governor had sent in thousands of militia to restore order. At least seven people died, and there was US$200,000 in property damage, mostly to the black neighborhoods. It was the only riot against blacks in 20th-century United States history in which more white deaths (five) were recorded than black (two). (In 1876 violence at Cainhoy, South Carolina, more whites died than blacks.) The riot was a factor in a biracial group forming the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization to work to improve civil rights for blacks, and to educate all the populace and improve race relations.
Around the start of the 20th century, Springfield, Illinois was a rapidly growing industrial center, with the highest percentage of African Americans of any comparably sized city in Illinois. It also had numerous European immigrants who came for industrial jobs. Blacks had been migrating north for work and in 1900 numbered 2300 residents in Springfield, 6.5 percent of the town's population. Although blacks were generally kept to lower-class and unskilled jobs, and lived in segregated areas, social tensions arose from fierce job competition with the recent European immigrants for the lower grade jobs. Industries sometimes used black workers as strikebreakers during labor strikes. Town residents worried about growing political power among blacks.
"It is the central paradox of our history that a nation based on the respect for law and order should so often resort to violence to maintain the inequities of race and class."
On Saturday, July 4, 1908, someone broke into the home of Clergy Ballard, a white mining engineer. Ballard awoke and rose to investigate, finding a man standing near his daughter's bed. The intruder fled the house and Ballard gave chase. After Ballard caught up with the intruder, the man turned and attacked him, slashing Ballard's throat with a straight razor. Before dying on Sunday, Ballard identified his assailant as Joe James, a young black man new to town. White residents found James sleeping off a drunk night in the North End, a white working-class neighborhood, and beat him before police took him away. They arrested him, and locked him in the city jail. The press suggested that Ballard had saved his daughter from a sexual attack, which inflamed residents more.
On August 14, the local Illinois State Journal newspaper reported that a white woman, Mabel Hallam, had allegedly been raped by a local black caretaker, George Richardson. Hallam, the 21-year-old wife of a well-known streetcar conductor, claimed that Richardson had assaulted her the night before. Police arrested Richardson and took him to the city jail.
Later on August 14, a crowd of ethnic whites, mostly men, gathered in downtown Springfield, outraged that the two black men, James and Richardson, had allegedly committed brutal crimes against whites. The large crowd, by 7:30 pm numbering 5,000 to 10,000, went to the jail and demanded the release of the prisoners. Sheriff Charles Werner had already transferred the prisoners to safety in Bloomington 64 miles away, with the help of restaurant owner Harry Loper. He had been through a race riot in Cincinnati and hoped to avoid another one.
When the crowd learned that Loper had helped relocate the two black prisoners, men went to his restaurant for retaliation. The sheriff sent about ten cavalry but forbade them to fire. The mob trashed Loper's fine restaurant: its elegant interior and all the furnishings, and overturned and burned his expensive automobile, while he escaped. Told that the local authorities were overwhelmed, Governor Charles S. Deneen activated the state militia. At Loper's, a white workman of 18 was shot and died in the crush of the mob in the basement, the first casualty of the riot.
The crowd began to attack black areas of the city. It moved to the Levee (Seventh and Washington), a predominantly African-American business area, including dives and saloons as well as more legitimate businesses. First they attacked the pawnshop of John Olberman, who was Jewish, and stole guns and ammunition. They destroyed a total of 35 black-owned businesses, and shattered windows and storefronts all along Washington Street. They destroyed the saloons owned by two black business and political leaders, one active with the Republicans and the other with the Democrats. The blacks defended their businesses on Washington Street and three more white men were shot in the conflict; one died crushed by the mob, and two more died later of their wounds. Otherwise, half the reported casualties were from gunshots and a quarter from bricks, used both by defenders in the Levee and especially by the mob. This was the only 20th-century race riot against blacks in the United States in which white deaths outnumbered those of blacks.
The crowd moved on toward the Badlands, the heart of the black residential area. It was filled with substandard housing leased at high rates to them, but middle and upper-class people lived here, too. The mob burned black-owned homes in the Badlands, destroying a four-block area and doing much damage to neighboring streets. They encountered Scott Burton, an African American who owned his barber shop and had only whites as clients. Burton defended his business by firing a warning shot; the mob killed him with return fire. They burned his shop and dragged his body to a nearby saloon, hanging it outside from a tree.
By this time, an estimated 12,000 whites had gathered to watch the houses burn. When firefighters arrived, people in the crowd impeded their progress and cut their hoses. African-American citizens fled town, found refuge with sympathetic whites, or hid in the State Arsenal, where the militia protected them. The militia finally dispersed the crowd late that night after reinforcements arrived after 2 am.
The next day, August 15, as thousands of black residents fled the city, another 5,000 militiamen arrived to keep the peace, although not early enough to save the second black victim of the mob. Curiosity seekers and tourists who had read about the riots in the newspaper also came to the stricken city. A new mob formed and approached the State Arsenal, where many black residents had taken refuge. When confronted by a militiaman, the crowd changed direction.
Several hundred men and boys went to the home of black resident William Donnegan, who was known for his marriage to Sarah Rudolph, an Irish-German woman about thirty years younger. He was either 84 or 76-years old. When Donnegan came outside after threats of burning his house, the mob captured him, cut his throat, and lynched him in a tree across the street, two blocks from the governor's office. Sarah escaped with their infant daughter and was taken in by a neighbor.
The militia quelled the riots on August 15, leaving 40 homes and 24 businesses in ruins, and seven people confirmed dead: two black men and five whites killed in the violence. Some of the white casualties were shot by blacks defending their homes and businesses. There were rumored to have been several more unreported deaths. (In 1876 violence at Cainhoy, South Carolina, more whites died than blacks, another one of the few instances where this occurred in a white-initiated riot.)
A grand jury brought 107 indictments against nearly 80 individuals who had allegedly participated in the riots (including four police officers), but only one man, a 20-year-old Russian Jewish vegetable peddler named Abraham Raymer, was convicted. There were a few misdemeanor pleas. His crime was stealing a saber from a guard. Raymer had previously been tried for the murder of William Donnegan, as he had been placed on the scene. He was acquitted of that and serious charges in two later trials, results that set the tone for the rest of the cases.
Kate Howard, a white woman who had encouraged the early violence, committed suicide before facing charges against her. Mabel Hallam later admitted that her accusation of rape against George Richardson was false, and he was released from jail without incident. She and her husband moved to Chicago. Later that year, Joe James was convicted of the murder of Ballard and hanged in the Sangamon County Jail on October 23, 1908.
As a direct result of the Springfield race riot, African-American and white concerned citizens met in New York City to discuss solutions to racial problems in the U.S. They formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a national organization for civil rights.
- Nine historical markers are installed in the city that describe key moments in the Springfield race riot of 1908, and mark a self-guided walk for visitors.
- In August 2008, for a centennial commemoration of the riot, the Citizens Club held a re-enactment of the first murder trial of Abraham Raymer, with the audience to act as jurors and stimulate discussion about what happened.
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- Carole Merritt, Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908, exhibit catalog, Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, 2008