20. SPRINGFIELD RACE RIOT, 1908
By 1908 a larger percentage of the population of Springfield was black than that of any other city in Illinois.
Some 3000 in number, many of the blacks lived in the "Badlands" located several blocks north of the state capitol. The district bordered Washington Street and extended eastward in a line of rough one-room shacks and clapboard hovels. The "business section" of Washington Street contributed heavily to the city's irrefutable reputation for corruption and violence.
Black workers competed with their white counterparts for jobs in the factories and mines, and both groups lived in general awareness of the vicious racial warfare that had broken out a decade earlier in somewhat similar situations in Virden, Pana, and Carterville.
That the attitudes of blacks were more aggressive than the white population preferred was revealed by one writer who observed with amazement that the Springfield Negro "is usually ready to open up an argument that he is as good as a white man."
Racial tension mounted on July 4, 1908, when a white mining engineer died of razor wounds inflicted by a black man who, as rumor had it, was intent upon assaulting the murdered man's daughter. In the midst of an atmosphere thickened by this incident, on Aug. 13 the young wife of a white street car conductor claimed she had been assaulted in the bedroom of her home by a black man. The next day, Friday, Aug. 14, the city's rage focused on the Sangamon County jail where both the murderer and the accused rapist were being held.
A dangerous crowd which gathered outside the jail was frustrated when the prisoners were spirited away to Bloomington on a ruse. As knowledge of the sheriff's trick became known later in the evening, the angry mob moved to the establishment of the- man whose car was used in the removal. The car and its owner's business were destroyed.
The mob then armed itself with weapons taken from one of 23 other places of business which were either destroyed or damaged, and rushed into the black residential district, the "Badlands." Before violence subsided that evening a total of 40 black homes were burned to the ground, black citizens were intimidated and beaten, and large numbers of them lined the roads out of the city. A black barber shop owner was shot to death protecting his property, and his body hanged to a tree by the vengeful mob.
Although the militia arrived on Saturday, Aug. 15, the mob reformed that evening and moved to the home of an 80-year-old black man who for 32 years had been married to a white woman, dragged him from his home, and murdered him. The toll for the bloody weekend was two blacks murdered, five white men killed from assorted wounds inflicted by the militia or incidental rioting, 100 persons of both races hospitalized, 40 black homes burned, and two dozen businesses destroyed.
In response to the sense of outrage which swept the state and nation, the Grand Jury convened the last weeks of August and returned a total of 107 indictments against some 80 persons on charges ranging from riot to murder. However, the state managed only one conviction - against a man accused of having stolen a black militiaman's saber. Not long afterward, the woman assaulted on Aug. 13, whose cries triggered the riot, admitted her attacker had not been a black man after all; and the accused prisoner was released.
A more lasting result occurred outside the state in response to Published accounts of the violence. An invitation was issued for a meeting on Lincoln's birthday in 1909 to "all believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protest, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and Political liberties."
The conference, attended by a host of famous Americans, black and white, led to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization able to respond to but not to prevent similar and more serious riots in East St. Louis in 1917 and in Chicago in 1919.