Dear Reader: I am immersed in a demanding rewrite of my novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Thus I cannot offer you a fresh post this week. Please enjoy this reblog of a fictional/factual treatment of a major historical event, the Springfield race riot of 1908.
Anarchy, Loper thought.
Crowds of men, women too, ran through the afternoon streets of Springfield. Shouted. Shook fists. Spooked horses. Snarled teams and rigs. Loper had witnessed the Cincinnati riots in 1884. Now those bloody scenes flashed back across his mind.
He frowned and crushed the horn bulb, steered his touring car through the lunatics, trying not to bump flesh. Loper’s 1906 Dorris was his pride and joy, but as a National Guard member and community leader, he knew his duty. He drove toward the county jail, the same place the mob was going, but on a different mission.
Out of nowhere, six of Springfield’s new motorized fire engines came roaring down the street. Loper swerved, nearly killing some moron walking in the gutter. Bells clanging, the fire trucks raced northward, beyond Union Square Park—and the mob in the street followed them. Loper turned down an alley between Washington and Jefferson Streets and approached the jail from the back.
“Took your time getting here,” said Sheriff Werner.
“There was a mob in the street, and by the way, the North End seems to be burning down.”
“Don’t worry about that fire. It’s a little invention of mine, to draw people away.” The sheriff barked back over his shoulder: “Come on, hustle!”
Two black men in prison stripes and handcuffs stumbled into the sunlight, surrounded by four armed lawmen.
“Harry Loper,” said the sheriff, “meet Deputies Kramer, Hanrahan, and Rhodes, and Sergeant Yanzell of the city police. The famous desperadoes climbing in behind you are Joe James and George Richardson. They may hang for their crimes next week, but by God we’ll keep them safe tonight.”
Loper turned in his seat to look at the prisoners. Both men stared bleakly at the floorboards. The Dorris was spacious, but two of the gun-wielding deputies had to stand on the running boards. Loper drove all six, prisoners and officers, five miles to Sherman, where they caught a train for Bloomington.
He drove fast on the return trip, anxious to get back to his restaurant—even though a big supper rush seemed unlikely. Decent folk would not venture out this night, even for a Friday feed at Springfield’s finest eatery.
But that was the least of it. He turned into Fifth Street only to find his place beleaguered by an ugly mob. He parked in the street and leapt from the car.
“There he is!” shouted someone as he ran in the door. “That’s Loper, the dirty nigger-lover!”
Loper made straight for his office and got the rifle he kept in case of robbers. He came out and stood in the doorway, brandishing the gun as broadly as he could.
“You hauled the negro out of town,” shouted a voice, female this time. “Now we will haul you!” The crowd surged forward.
Loper ran for his life.
A fictionalized account of true events.
Back in Business
My Grandma, Millie Marie Gunsten-not-yet-Sommers, lived in Low Point, Illinois, in 1908 and collected postcards. In her collection are two cards with no written message, no address, no stamps, no postmarks. They were never mailed. She must have been acquired them hot off the press.
These cards were printed and distributed for an urgent purpose: To get Harry Loper back in business after the riot. But theywere no doubt kept by Grandma simply as mementoes of the riot.
I remember her, from the 1940s and ’50s, as a homely old woman in a shapeless dress, who wore big button hearing aids, smiled a lot, rocked me in her rocking chair when I couldn’t sleep, and gave me a spoonful of honey when I had a cough.
In 1908, she would have been about twenty, a shy and socially awkward telephone operator still living with her parents and younger siblings in a very small town. What would she have thought of the distressing and notorious events in nearby Springfield? Did the big riot stay in her memory? She had enough things to occupy her mind in the intervening years, with marriage to a profane and pugnacious railroad telegrapher, the raising of five children, the loss of two sons in World War II. She never mentioned the riot in my hearing, and I never asked her about it, since I had never even heard of it. Long before I came along, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 had been buried in society’s willing forgetfulness.
The Springfield Race Riot of 1908
But our haunted past has been resurrected. We now know that Springfield, Illinois—Abraham Lincoln’s home, the city from which he went to Washington to preside over a Union torn apart by slavery—was the site of one of the worst, and also most significant, race riots in the post-Reconstruction period.
On August 14, 1908, a young white woman, Mabel Hallam, charged George Richardson, a black construction worker, with raping her the night before. “I believe you are the man,” she said after hesitantly identifying him at the sheriff’s office in the Sangamon County Courthouse, “and you will have to prove that you are not.”
“Before God, I am innocent of this crime,” Richardson said. “I can explain her identification of me only by the theory that all coons look alike to her.”
An angry crowd formed outside the courthouse. Armed guards marched Richardson three blocks to the county jail and locked him up. Soon the mob re-formed at the jail.
Sheriff Charles Werner resisted using National Guard troops the governor placed at his disposal. He figured that getting the prisoner out of town would calm the mob. He telephoned Harry Loper to commandeer his car and arranged the diversionary tactic of a fake fire alarm. Perhaps as an afterthought, he added a second black prisoner to Loper’s cargo—one Joe James, languishing in jail for the July 4 murder of Clergy Ballard, a white mining engineer.
But the mob would not be placated. Learning that Loper had driven the two men out of town, hundreds converged on his restaurant, utterly destroying it and Loper’s car. The restaurateur escaped through a rear basement entrance, but Louis Johnston, a white factory worker, was hit by a stray gunshot inside the restaurant and died.
Black Districts Pillaged
The mob then turned to the Levee, a black business district, and the Badlands, a nearby neighborhood where blacks lived in mostly run-down houses. Many African American residents fled to any available refuge, although some defended themselves with revolvers and shotguns, firing from upper stories of businesses in the Levee.
The white mob lynched two black businessmen—Scott Burton, a 59-year-old barber, and William K. H. Donnegan, an 84-year-old shoemaker. Both men were beaten, slashed, and hung, their bodies mutilated.
In three days of rioting, at least thirty-five black-owned businesses were destroyed and riddled with bullets, and a four-square-block residential area was put to the torch. Local police, fire, and sheriff’s office responses were ineffective or nonexistent. Order was eventually restored by National Guard troops, deployed too late to stop the destruction and carnage. Accounts differ as to how many Springfield citizens, besides Burton and Donnegan, were killed or injured. At least several people, both black and white, died. Some estimates are higher.
Within a few days, a special grand jury “issued a total of 117 indictments and made eighty-five arrests for murder, burglary, larceny, incitement to riot, disorderly conduct, concealed weapons, and suspicion” (Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908, by Carole Merritt [Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, 2008], p. 59).
However, in the trials that followed, only one person faced serious punishment for participation in the riot—Roy Young, 15, who confessed to “shooting at negroes” and helping burn 15 or 16 houses and was sentenced to the state reformatory at Pontiac. Another rioter, Kate Howard, a boardinghouse owner known to have led rioters in the destruction of Loper’s café, was released on $10,000 bond and subsequently re-arrested in connection with the lynching of Scott Burton. “Before leaving for prison, Howard secretly took poison and died at the door of the county jail.”
Negro prisoner Joe James was convicted of the murder of Clergy Ballard and was hanged October 23, 1908. However, George Richardson, the man whose alleged rape of Mabel Hallam was the actual spark for the riot, was fully exonerated and released from jail two weeks after the riot, when his accuser admitted to the grand jury that she made the story up. According to Wikipedia, “He received no restitution or apology for his time away from work or harm to his name. He went on to work as a janitor, and lived until he was 76, when he died at St. John’s Hospital. His obituary did not mention the events of 1908.”
Catalyst for Founding of the NAACP
Richardson’s vindication would seem to be the only good thing to have come out of the Springfield riot. But it was not.
Wealthy white Republican Socialist William English Walling traveled to Springfield in the aftermath of the riot, visited hard-hit areas and spoke with survivors of the riot. He penned an article, “The Race War in the North,” for a New York weekly, The Independent. Journalist and social activist Mary White Ovington read Walling’s article and wrote to him in response. They organized a January 1909 meeting in New York, attended also by Dr. Henry Moskowitz, which became the founding meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Prominent black and white leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Villard and his mother Frances Garrison Villard, Ray Baker, Mary Church Terrell, Archibald Grimké, and Ida B. Wells joined the initial organizational efforts.
Thus the Springfield riot became the catalyst that led to the formation of the NAACP early the following year.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)