Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Springfield Race Riots of 1908

When I first drove into Springfield, I was shocked to see all kinds of signs about the Springfield Race Riots of 1908. What the heck was that about? There is a walking tour of spots detailing what happened over two awful days but there also happened to be an outstanding temporary exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library about the whole traumatic episode.

These episodes always seem to have the same theme
Two weeks later she admitted she made it all up

During two hot and humid days in August of 1908, some of the white population of Springfield went on a rampage and terrorized the African-American population. It all started when a white woman accused an African-American man of raping her. Two black men were held in the county jail for crimes against whites including this one. A large white crowd assembled outside the jail, wanting to take matters into their own hands, chanting for vigilante justice.

The police got the two men out of there immediately. When the angry mob figured out they had been tricked, and the prisoners had been spirited out, they went on an ugly, destructive rampage that lasted over a couple days. It didn't end until the Governor called in the National Guard.

The nation was shocked something like this could happen
in Lincoln's Springfield
The skill with which this exhibit was put together is astounding. It starts off with a proclamation from the current mayor that includes an acknowledgment of the events that took place 100 years ago and an apology. Each panel then explains exactly what the white mob did. Teachers are warned about exercising caution before exposing children to the exhibit.

Despite the incredibly sensational nature of what is shared, I did not find the exhibit induced "white guilt." I found it to instead produce "white growth." There's something about the quiet explanation of each cruel act that is like hearing someone's wrongs and really processing it and feeling it. I wasn't even there and it was 100 years ago, but I could feel some of my own denial cut through like a hot knife through butter by the presentation. I wish I could drag this fantastic explanation of history to some local malls. It needs to expand it's reach beyond those who would come into a library.

This form of hate may be under glass now
but there are always new forms of hate
for us to guard against

If this could happen in Lincoln's Springfield, activists at the time believed it could happen anywhere. The Springfield Race Riots of 1908 led to the formation of the National Association of Colored People, an organization that has been incredibly effective at curbing these abuses.

You might be interested in these posts:

Why the Obama Presidential Library needs to be in
Springfield, Illinois

A near spiritual experience at Central High School in
Little Rock, Arkansas

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