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The effort to make 1908 Springfield Race Riot sites a national monument resumes

A work titled Acts of Intolerance stands in Springfield's downtown.
Visit Springfield
A work titled Acts of Intolerance stands in Springfield's downtown.

Illinois U.S. Senators are trying again to get locations related to the 1908 Race Riot in Springfield designated as a national monument. Legislation has been refiled. The 1908 Springfield Race Riot National Monument Act would mean the site would be managed by the U.S. National Park Service.

“The 1908 Springfield Race Riot site is of extraordinary cultural and historical importance to our state and to this country,” Duckworth said. “By designating this area a national monument, we will help ensure that the painful lessons learned here will not be lost for the generations of Americans to come. Making our national parks better reflect our nation’s people and history is long overdue, and it’s time we properly recognize this site and the lives that were lost here.”

Duckworth points out less than a quarter of the country’s national parks are devoted to preserving the histories of people of color and documenting the struggles they endured, designating this site will help guarantee that public lands reflect the diversity and complexity of our country.

During the Race Riot, a mob of white residents murdered at least six Black Americans, burned Black homes and businesses and attacked hundreds of residents for no other reason than the color of their skin. In the aftermath of the riot, the NAACP was formed.

According to the official account of what took place, 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.

During an excavation as part of the Springfield High Speed Rail project near Carpenter Street, foundations and artifacts from homes destroyed during the riot were uncovered. An agreement with community members was reached in 2018 to excavate the remains and designate the uncovered site a memorial.

“The 1908 Springfield Race Riot was a violent and hateful tragedy, but as a part of Illinois’ history, it is a story that needs to be told,” said Durbin.  “The NAACP formed out of this event and has gone on to serve as an unwavering voice for Black Americans.  In reintroducing the Springfield Race Riot National Monument Act, we can honor the lives lost during the deadly riots and reaffirm our commitment to fighting prejudice in Illinois and across the country.”

Duckworth and Durbin originally introduced the legislation in 2019 and again in 2021. Two years ago, the Senators and other officials, including former Congressman Rodney Davis, called on President Biden to establish the site as a national monument.

In 2018, Davis asked for a survey. A year later, a U.S. Department of the Interior review found a 1908 Springfield Race Riot site suitable for designation as a national historic monument.

“The 1908 Springfield Race Riot Site is an important part of our nation’s history that must be recognized and preserved,” Davis said.

The legislation is supported by the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum.