Saturday, February 10, 2007

Barack Obama, the Springfield Race Riots, and the 2008 Election

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The symbolism of Barack Obama's choice of Springfield, Illinois, to announce his run for the presidency is obvious: Abraham Lincoln; the Great Emancipator; Lincoln's "House Divided" speech; the Civil War. But there is another historical connection between Springfield and black Americans: the 1908 Springfield Race Riots, in which thousands of whites went on a murderous rampage after a black man, named George Richardson, was accused (falsely) of having raped a white woman:

Though now largely forgotten, the events and aftermath of the Springfield Race Riot, as it came to be known, are as relevant to the hopes of Obama as is the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

The year was 1908. It was mid-August and America was in the throes of a very different presidential race. Republican William Howard Taft was running out the clock against perennial Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, whom Taft would beat easily in November. The economy had rebounded from a crash in 1907 and was back on a soaring trajectory. The U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet was sailing around the world, the Wright brothers were being hailed as "conquerors of the air," and Robert Peary had sailed off to discover the North Pole. These were giddy times in America, and booming times in Springfield, which had grown from a country village to a city of 50,000.

The one group untouched by the nation's prosperity and optimism was African-Americans. Even by the standards of what had come before, and would come later, 1908 was a brutal year for black people in this country. Jim Crow laws had wiped out most of the gains of Reconstruction and a steady campaign of lynching and other forms of physical intimidation kept blacks in near subjugation throughout the South. More recently, and ominously, Northern cities had begun imposing their own brand of Jim Crow. "A few years ago no hotel or restaurant refused Negro guests," journalist Ray Stannard Baker noted in 1908 after visiting Boston. "Now several hotels, restaurants, and especially confectionery stores, will not serve Negroes, even the best of them."

And then came August, and Springfield exploded.

The incendiary event was a white woman's accusation of rape against a black man. The charge would later turn out to be the deception of an unfaithful wife; her boyfriend had beaten her up and she'd used the excuse of a black stranger to explain the bruises. For the moment, though, her lie was taken as gospel truth. On Aug. 14, as local newspapers fanned outrage, several thousand whites descended on the county jail. They demanded that the suspect, a laborer named George Richardson, be delivered to them. What the mob intended to do to Richardson did not, in 1908, require much imagination.

Getting no satisfaction at the county jail, the mob turned its wrath elsewhere. Thousands marched into the black sections of town. "Abe Lincoln brought them to Springfield," someone shouted, "and we will run them out." Which is exactly what they attempted to do. Over the next several hours, whites attacked blacks wherever they found them and set fire to dozens of black businesses and homes. Whites who feared their own homes would be accidentally torched nailed white sheets to their doors.

As midnight passed, the mob advanced remorselessly into an area of town known as the Badlands. Coming upon an elderly black man named Harrison West, the rioters beat him severely. Finding a paralyzed man named William Smith, they dragged him from his house and threw him into a patch of weeds.

At 2 a.m., the mob arrived at the home of Scott Burton, a 56-year-old black barber. After firing buckshot at the mob, Burton tried to escape through a side door of his house, but he was overtaken and knocked unconscious. In the light of burning buildings, the mob lynched Burton from a nearby tree.

With daybreak on Saturday, Aug. 15, as Springfield smoldered and state militia poured in by train, some of the city's 3,000 blacks took refuge in the State Arsenal downtown. Many more fled into the surrounding countryside. Finding nearby towns inhospitable, they camped in the forest and cornfields.

The soldiers tamped down the violence, but only temporarily. Saturday night brought more rioting and burning, and ended with the lynching of an 84-year-old African-American named William Donnegan. A retired cobbler, Donnegan had been friends, long ago, with Abraham Lincoln.

When the white journalist William English Walling arrived in Springfield from Chicago on Sunday, he was stunned by the lack of remorse he encountered among the city's whites. Even those who had not participated in the pogrom seemed to condone it. Certainly few had intervened to stop it. "Springfield," Walling would write in a widely circulated left-wing journal, "had no shame."

Nor apparently did the rest of America. "If these outrages had happened thirty years ago, when memories of Lincoln, Garrison and Wendell Phillips were still fresh," Walling asked his readers to imagine, "what would not have happened in the North?"

What happened in the North in 1908 was tepid outrage, followed by tenuous explanations, followed quickly by nothing at all. By the time America celebrated the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth on Feb. 12, 1909, the riot had been effectively brushed under the rug. In Springfield, the Great Emancipator's centennial was celebrated with a feast in the State Arsenal, the same building into which blacks had fled back in August. This time, no blacks were invited.

Whether or not Obama had the 1908 race riots at least partly in mind when he chose to kick off his campaign in Springfield, it would be pretty darn elegant if the first black American in U.S. history became president of the United States in 2008, wouldn't it?

2 comments:

Chief said...

I was not aware of race riots in 1908 in Springfield, IL. But it does not surprise me. My step-father-in-law used to be a deputy sheriff in Mercer County (Celina), Ohio. He was telling us just last Wednesday about a law tat used to be on the books that he had to research about being against the law for a person of color to be in Mercer County after the sun set.

I ave not read the book yet as my wife is still reading it, but it is about the Randolph slaves. Randolph was a Virginia planter who died around 1830. In his will he freed all of his slaves and made arrangements for them to live in Mercer County, Ohio. It took 15 years of litigation before they were free. Remembering that some and maybe most of these freed slaves were illiterate, reading how the lawyers took advantage of their ignorance is embarrassing, to say the least.

Anyway, even tho the land had been purchased, the local court in Celina, Ohio refused to allow them to settle on the land.

Mercer County was settled, predominantly, by Germans. German Protestants in the north half of the county and German Catholics in the south half. To this day the Catholic church in the south half refuses to allow anyone to look at any land records the church has. Also, US route 127 runs north-south in western Ohio. When a cemetery that had the remains of both blacks and whites happened to be in the way of the highway, route 127 was built over the black part of the cemetery.

Kathy said...

That sounds like an interesting book. What is the title?

OT: There is a Mercer County in New Jersey, too. My ex-husband has cousins who live there.