Springfield race riot of 1908

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Springfield race riot
Springfield race riot damage.jpg
An example of the damage caused to black residences in the riot
Date August 14/15 1908
Location Springfield, Illinois
Caused by Arrests of blacks for violent crimes against whites
Methods Rioting, arson, lynching
Parties to the civil conflict
White rioters
Death(s) 7

The Springfield race riot of 1908 was a mass civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois, United States on August 14-16, 1908, sparked by the arrest of two African Americans as suspects in violent crimes against Whites. When a mob seeking to take the men for lynching discovered the sheriff had transferred them out of the city, it rioted in Black neighborhoods. It killed Black citizens on the street and destroyed businesses and homes. It was the first race riot in the North in half a century.

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, there was US$200,000 in property damage--mostly to the Black neighborhoods--and the riot caused a Black exodus from Springfield.[1] This was one of the few riots of Whites against Blacks in 20th-century United States history in which more White deaths (five) were recorded than Black (two).[citation needed] The riot was a factor in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by both Blacks and Whites. Its goal was to improve civil rights for Black people, 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-American residents of any comparably sized city in Illinois. It also had a high proportion of European immigrants who came for industrial jobs. Black people had been migrating north for work and to leave the social oppression of the South; in 1900 they numbered 2300 residents in Springfield, 6.5 percent of the town's population. Although Black people 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 Black people.[2][3]

"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."[4]


On Saturday, July 4, 1908, a man broke into the home of Clergy Ballard, located at 1135 North Ninth Street. Ballard was a White, working class man and long-time North End resident. Ballard's young daughter awoke to find a man standing near her bed, after which Ballard chased the man out of the house. Ballard was then fatally stabbed in the front lawn.[5] Before dying on Sunday, Ballard stated that the attacker was Black. Joe James, a young Black man new to town, was subsequently arrested. White residents found James sleeping off a drunk night in the North End, a primarily White, mixed-income neighborhood, and beat him before police took him away. James was imprisoned in the city jail. The press suggested that Ballard had saved his daughter from a sexual attack, which inflamed residents more.[6]

On August 14, the local Illinois State Journal newspaper reported that a White woman, Mabel Hallam, had allegedly been raped by a local Black hod carrier, George Richardson. Hallam, the 21-year-old wife of a well-known streetcar conductor William Hallam, had falsely identified Richardson as the assailant in order to protect her White lover.[5] Police arrested Richardson and took him to the city jail.[3]


Later on August 14, a mostly-male White crowd gathered in downtown Springfield. The angry mob was convinced that the two Black suspects, James and Richardson, had committed brutal crimes against Whites. The crowd, numbering 5,000 to 10,000 by 7:30 p.m., went to the jail and demanded the release of the prisoners to them. Sheriff Charles Werner distracted the crowd allowing an accomplice, Harry Loper, to spirit away the two suspects in his automobile; one of the few motor vehicles in Springfield at the time. "Harry Loper (1908 race riot)" The two suspects were taken to Bloomington, about 64 miles away. "Springfield Race Riot".

After the crowd learned that Loper, a wealthy restaurateur, had arranged the suspects' transfer, they went to his restaurant for revenge. The sheriff sent about ten cavalry to the site but forbade them to fire. The mob trashed Loper's restaurant, its interior, furnishings, and overturned and burned his automobile. An 18-year-old White worker was fatally shot in the basement; the first casualty of the riot.[7] Loper managed to escape. Governor Charles S. Deneen activated the state militia when he realized local authorities were overwhelmed.

The crowd began to attack Black areas of the city, moving to the Levee (Seventh and Washington), a predominantly Black business area. It included dives and saloons as well as some legitimate businesses. First, the mob attacked the pawnshop of John Olberman, who was Jewish, and stole guns and ammunition. Then, they destroyed a total of 35 other Black-owned businesses, and shattered windows and storefronts all along Washington Street. Among the businesses destroyed were saloons owned by two Black business and political leaders, one an active Republican and the other a Democrat. Three White men were shot in the conflict, allegedly by Blacks defending their businesses on Washington Street. One of the White victims was crushed by the mob, and two others died later of their wounds. Otherwise, about half of the reported casualties were from gunfire and about a quarter from bricks hurled into the crowd.[8]

The crowd moved on toward the Badlands, the heart of the Black residential area. The mob burned homes in the Badlands, destroying a four-block area and doing much damage to neighboring streets.[9] They encountered Scott Burton, a Black barbershop owner. Burton fired into the crowd and was subsequently killed by return fire. They burned his shop and dragged his body to a nearby saloon, hanging it outside from a tree.[10]

By this time, an estimated 12,000 Whites had gathered to watch the houses burn. When firefighters arrived, the Whites impeded their progress by slashing their hoses. Many Blacks fled town, found refuge with sympathetic Whites, or hid in the State Arsenal, where the White militia protected them. The militia finally dispersed the crowd late that night after reinforcements arrived after 2 a.m.[11]

The next day, August 15, another 5,000 militiamen arrived to maintain order. Nonetheless, William Donnegan was killed becoming the second Black victim. Curiosity seekers and tourists who had read about the riots in the newspaper also came to the stricken city.[12] 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 William Donnegan, an elderly Black man whose wife, Sarah Rudolph, was an Irish-German woman about thirty years his younger. He was recorded as 84 or 76 years old.[13] When Donnegan came outside after threats to burn his house, the mob captured him, cut his throat, and lynched him from a tree across the street, two blocks from the governor's office.[14] Sarah escaped with their infant daughter and was taken in by a neighbor.[13]

On August 16, a mob gathered and attacked the house of Clarence Harvey, a Black man and recent transplant from Chicago. Harvey was living with his family in a predominantly White neighborhood, at 1144 North Seventh Street. Harvey and his family managed to escape and take refuge in the local jail as the mob threw bricks at and shot at the house. Five White males, all of whom lived in close proximity to Clergy Ballard, were arrested for their part in the attack.[5]


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 were killed in the violence. There were rumored to have been several more unreported deaths. According to The Illinois State Journal, two thousand Blacks left Springfield immediately following the riot. "There are still many negroes left in Springfield but of these there are many planning to go at the first opportunity."[1]

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. 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. Raymer was beaten by police in an effort to extract a confession, but maintained his innocence. He was acquitted of that and serious charges in two later trials, results that set the tone for the rest of the cases. There were a few misdemeanor pleas. The lack of evidence, however, allowed most of the perpetrators of the violence to avoid successful prosecution.[15]

Kate Howard, a White woman who had encouraged the early violence, committed suicide before facing charges against her. George Richardson, accused of raping Mabel Hallam, was released from jail without incident after the alleged victim failed to press charges.[16] Hallam also recanted her statement identifying Richardson as her assailant, admitting that her White lover was the true culprit.[5] Hallam 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.[17]

As a direct result of the Springfield race riot, Black 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, which was at first based in New York City. It superseded an earlier civil rights organization.[17]

Historian Carole Merritt says that the Springfield was the only 20th-century race riot of Whites against Black people in the United States in which White deaths outnumbered those of Black people.[8][18] But in rioting in Washington, DC in July 1919, a total of 10 Whites were killed versus 5 Black people.[19]


  • Nine historical markers have been 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.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "2,000 Negroes Leave the City". The Illinois State Journal. August 17, 1908. Retrieved May 31, 2017. 
  2. ^ Merritt (2008), Something So Horrible, pp. 13-17
  3. ^ a b "Springfield Race Riot", Think Quest
  4. ^ Merritt (2008), Something So Horrible, p. 43
  5. ^ a b c d Senechal, Roberta (1990). The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois in 1908. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 19–20. 
  6. ^ Carole Merritt, Something So Horrible, 2008, pp. 11-12
  7. ^ Merritt (2008), Something So Horrible", pp. 19-22
  8. ^ a b Merritt (2008), Something So Horrible", pp. 24-28
  9. ^ Merritt (2008), Something So Horrible", pp. 31-32
  10. ^ [1], ThinkQuest
  11. ^ [2]
  12. ^ [3]
  13. ^ a b Browning, Tamara. "The Victims: William Donnegan", State Journal-Register, 3 June 2008. Accessed 16 September 2008.
  14. ^ Merritt (2008), Something So Horrible", pp. 40-41
  15. ^ a b Dettro, Chris. "Citizens Club to re-enact murder trial stemming from race riot", State Journal-Register. 8 August 2008, Accessed September 15, 2008.
  16. ^ Kemp, Bill (2014-08-10). "Bloomington inescapably linked to Springfield Race Riot". The Pantagraph. Retrieved 2016-04-18. 
  17. ^ a b [4]
  18. ^ [5]
  19. ^ Kenneth D. Ackerman, Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), 60-2
  • Merritt, Carole. Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908. "[6]"
  • Krohe, James. Summer of Rage; the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. Springfield, Illinois, Sangamon County Historical Society [1973].
  • Madala, D., Jordan, J., and Appleton, A. "Springfield Race Riot of 1908."
  • Senechal, Roberta. (1996) "The Springfield Race Riot of 1908", Illinois History Teacher, 3:2. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency: Springfield, Illinois.
  • Senechal, Roberta. The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  • Senechal, Roberta. In Lincoln's Shadow: the Springfield, Illinois, Race Riot of 1908, Thesis (Ph. D.) University of Virginia, 1986.
  • Walling, William English. "The Race War in the North," Independent 65 (September 3, 1908): 529-534.
  • Rasenberger, Jim. America 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T, and the Making of a Modern Nation, pp. 173–183.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Carole Merritt, Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908, exhibit catalog, Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, 2008