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Reading: Anatomy of a Race Riot

In 1908, a gathering storm of racial violence touched down in Springfield, hometown of the Great Emancipator. The similarities between that time and ours are striking.

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In August of 1908, mobs of white people attempted to drive the African American citizens of Springfield, Illinois, from that city during two days of murder, arson, and beatings. Outraged that such assaults should take place in the hometown of the Great Emancipator, reformer Oswald Garrison Villard urged like-minded people to find ways to change what historian Roberta Senechal calls in a new book "America's dismal racial status quo." The eventual result of that plea was the founding in 1910 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which offered a program of organized dissent to the discrimination and violence aimed at African Americans.

The Springfield riots were not the first antiblack mob actions to erupt in a northern town, nor sadly were they the bloodiest, but for a time they were the most notorious, given what Senechal calls "the baleful symbolism" of race war in Lincoln's hometown. The events in Springfield have been largely ignored by scholars, however, an omission that says less about their significance than it does about the haphazard ways in which history gets written.

I must confess a certain involvement with the topic. Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a summary of the Springfield riots that was published by the local historical society. It was a luridly titled and crudely printed article of a sort that journalists dismiss with due contempt as a clip job, drawing upon published accounts rather than original sources.

Still, the pamphlet was the only contemporary account of those events available to an audience eager to know about them. The riots had long faded from official memory in Springfield, but a few old people (most of them black) still remembered and talked about them. Among those listening were a few younger black activists who cited the riots as evidence that the city's indifference, indeed antagonism, toward its African American citizens was a respected local tradition.

Another of the people intrigued by the stories was Cullom Davis, a history professor at Springfield's just-opened Sangamon State University. Most historians immediately succumb to the Lincoln virus upon their arrival in Springfield--even Davis today heads a project researching Lincoln's legal career--but 20 years ago Davis recognized that the riots revealed much more about Springfield than Lincoln did.

I was then a student, and at Davis's urging compiled my brief version of the riots. Although it was marketed only locally, the pamphlet sold a few thousand copies--testament more to public curiosity than to its quality as historical narrative. The piece went out of print several years ago, but booksellers still get requests for it, mainly from teachers. I made only desultory attempts to bring out a new edition, in part because I worried that the pamphlet was misleading, especially in its inadequate explanations of the causes of the outbreaks. What were the social tensions that led to the violence? Who took part and why? Why did violence erupt in Springfield and not in any of a dozen Illinois towns like it?

Fortunately, when Senechal was a graduate student in history at the University of Virginia, she was beginning to ask just those sorts of questions. The result is The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot, the latest of the nearly four dozen titles that constitute the University of Illinois Press series "Blacks in the New World."

Sociogenesis is the book that the topic deserves. Less forbidding than its title suggests, this readable, useful work is the antithesis of a sociological tract. Senechal--who is now an assistant professor of history at Washington and Lee University--explains that the Springfield riots offer "a special opportunity to explore anew the broader dynamics of race relations in the urban North." The result is a book that will reward anyone who wants to know more about race relations, Illinois, or the phenomenon of urban group violence. One hopes it will end up under many a Christmas tree in Bensonhurst.

Between 1900 and 1908, riots occurred in New York City, in Evansville and Greensburg, Indiana, and in Springfield, Ohio. These, and the riots in our capital, proved to be "the heat lightning that portends a gathering storm," a storm that broke in East Saint Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919 with appalling energy. Reports of the violence in Illinois' capital, for instance, sparked smaller "sympathetic race riots" in several states. In Chicago, police reported a sharp increase in white attacks on blacks, from unprovoked beatings of passersby to fights between white and black dock workers to reports of white lynch mobs on the prowl.

The news that came out of Springfield that August would have inspired any bigot. On a Friday in mid-month, an African American laborer named George Richardson was arrested and charged with having assaulted the wife of a streetcar driver on the previous night in her home in Springfield's working-class North End. As that Friday went on, a crowd of hostile whites gathered at the local sheriff's office demanding action. It grew so quickly in size and menace that the nervous sheriff mounted a guard of armed deputies around the jail that held the prisoner.

Feeling against blacks was already running high in Springfield. Blacks had become conspicuous in the Levee, the city's vice district, where everything from cocaine and sex to votes could be bought. The complaints about black lawlessness were aggravated early in the summer of 1908 when a white mining engineer was murdered--also in the North End--apparently after surprising an intruder in his daughter's room. Joe James, a black drifter from Alabama who was sleeping off a bender a few blocks away, was set upon as the culprit by neighbors and beaten. The police rescued James, then arrested him for the crime. Talk of lynching was heard around town, some of it encouraged no doubt by inflammatory press coverage of the incident.

Late on that mid-August Friday, the sheriff sneaked the prisoner Richardson out of the jail and put him on a train to Bloomington. The crowd, outraged by news of his flight, marched downtown and wrecked the restaurant owned by the man who'd lent his car for the escape. The crowd of several hundred rioters, swelled by several thousand onlookers, then rampaged through Springfield's Levee district. Businesses owned by or frequented by black people were ransacked. Looting was general, shots were fired, and black people caught on the street were beaten. The crowd then marched to the residential district known as the Black Belt, where the homes of black families were put to the torch as residents fled. Police resistance was token. Well after midnight, one Scott Burton, an African American barber who'd resisted the assault, was clubbed into unconsciousness, after which the mob hung his body from a tree, riddled it with bullets, and mutilated it.

Hindered by the presence of state troops the next night, whites resorted to terrorist hit-and-run tactics. One of their victims was an old black man named Donnegan who was dragged from his house, beaten, and slashed with a razor before a bungled attempt was made to lynch him; he died later in the hospital. State militia units eventually restored some order, but acts of intimidation and physical violence against black people and their employers continued for weeks.

All told, more than 40 black families were burned out, and 21 black businesses were looted or burned. To the grisly deaths of Burton and Donnegan the mobs added injuries to at least a dozen black people--there is reason to believe that the actual number beaten or shot was higher. Fifty-three white rioters were reported injured, most from gunfire (probably from militiamen's rifles), the rest from glass and thrown bricks.

Damage to the city treasury was substantial, as was the cost to the city's reputation. "Not since New York's [military] draft riot of 1863 had the white public been so forcibly reminded of the vehemence of anti-black hostility in the North," writes Senechal. "For weeks . . . Springfield [was] a byword for intolerance, corruption, and disorder."

Tragedy was followed by farce. Though the state indicted more than 100 people on various riot-related charges--including charges against some policemen of abetting a riot--only a few of the cases were tried, and there was only one conviction, on a minor charge. The other cases were simply abandoned by a state's attorney who became convinced that no Springfield jury would convict anyone of a riot crime.

Riots and lynchings, Senechal reminds us, were only the most extreme of the methods used by whites to subordinate black populations before World War I. Intimidation and discrimination had become so routine an aspect of life in the North by 1908 that most whites didn't even recognize them as such; some whites refused even to acknowledge that Springfield had had a race riot.

Senechal suggests that Springfield was typical in its complacent racism. A local judge who refused to grant a change of venue to riot defendants gave an explanation so at odds with reality as to suggest dementia, had it not come from one of that guild from whom nonsense spouts like water from a fountain. "In no county of the state," the judge opined, "does so little prejudice exist against the colored race as in the county of Sangamon."

It was in Sangamon County, of course, that white authorities did not even bother to record the names of blacks injured by rioters. In Sangamon County, black customers were refused service in white stores or overcharged, and blacks were barred from the list of invitees to the banquet in February 1909 celebrating the centenary of Lincoln's birth. When a touring theatrical company brought Thomas Dixon's The Clansman to town--the work that inspired D.W. Griffith's famous film celebrating the Klan, The Birth of a Nation--a committee of black Springfieldians warned the mayor that public performance might excite violence; the mayor's response was to order that only whites be allowed into the theater.

Senechal makes clear that the term "racism" identifies a complex social disease that spreads in several ways. She notes in her introduction that to date the scholarly theories offered to explain urban race riots in the United States--economic competition, southern-style racism, and "social strain"--are either unrelated to or inadequate to explain what happened in 1908 Springfield.

Economic competition is unlikely to have provoked the violence. Senechal remarks that blacks there rarely competed directly with whites, for the simple reason that by local custom blacks were barred from the jobs offered by such major Springfield employers as the streetcar companies and state government (apart from jobs as janitors). Black men did work in Springfield's many coal mines, but the white miners, who might have been expected to feel threatened by them, were not conspicuous among the rioters. Senechal also learned that there was no significant number of southern-born whites in Springfield, either among the mobs or in the general population.

The social-strain theory comes closest to explaining outbreaks such as Springfield's. According to this view, the social order is put under stress in times of great structural change--war, mass migrations, shifts in the economy. Racial violence is thought to become more likely as dominant groups try to fend off real or imagined threats to their dominance. This notion has been advanced in such classic studies of urban racial violence in the United States as William Tuttle's 1970 Race Riot, about the 1919 Chicago mobs.

Senechal argues, however, that the resulting portrait of race relations is too simple. She notes that northern cities were under nearly constant strain as they accommodated the influx of African Americans from the South, but there was not constant rioting. Similarly, though all big northern cities experienced social strain during this period, riots erupted in only a few of them.

Back in 1908 the Springfield press offered its own version of the social-strain theory. The arrival of black families into previously white residential enclaves was "tormenting" to respectable whites, one paper explained. But Senechal found that no black family established in an otherwise all-white block was attacked. Indeed, many rioters who traveled across town to join the attack on the Black Belt passed up isolated, vulnerable black families in neighborhoods on the way.

Besides, there was no obvious increase in social strain in 1908 Springfield--no massive population increase, no "invasion" of African American families into previously white enclaves, no opening of white job markets to black newcomers. Black challenges to accepted systems of white dominance were more imagined than real, Senechal suggests. But the increased presence of black people in the Levee, near downtown, meant that blacks had become more visible. Simply seeing black people seems to have frightened many of Springfield's whites.

Senechal has done the historian's real legwork, drawing on official records as no reporter at the time bothered to do. "Explanation," she says, "must be built from the ground up." Unlike many academics, who start with an idea and then seek the facts to support it, Senechal sought the facts that might suggest an idea.

Who, for example, was "the mob?" After the smoke had cleared, the press and the rest of respectable Springfield agreed that the rioters had been riffraff, even criminals. Arrest records, injury reports, and eyewitness accounts identified nearly 200 rioters by name; Senechal studied census and other data to describe each of them by age, trade, nationality, place of residence, and so on. That list of 200 was not comprehensive, however, and probably not even representative. Arrestees included a disproportionate number of transients and police-station regulars. The police did not arrest the many white people wounded by militia gunfire, even though the wounds were incontrovertible evidence of the victims' presence on the scene. This cheated history as well as justice; as Senechal puts it, bullets and bricks were more democratic in picking out the rioters than were law-enforcement officials.

Even allowing for the biases of the samples, the rioters hardly constituted a rabble. "It was, above all, a working class riot," Senechal concludes. The typical mob member was white, male, and in his mid-20s. Most were unmarried semiskilled laborers whose jobs, indeed whose lives, seldom brought them into close contact with African Americans. A surprisingly large percentage lived at home with widowed mothers, a fact students of family pathology may wish to note.

Senechal infers revenge as a possible motive: many rioters were railroad employees who worked with the husband of the woman allegedly attacked by George Richardson. Another conspicuous group were men of Irish descent, whom Senechal describes as "much more riot-prone than any other ethnic group." There were few Germans--Springfield's largest ethnic group at the time--among the rioters; the Russians, Poles, and Lithuanians were also notable by their absence.

Racism seemed to mean to the Irish what piety meant to some other ethnic groups, and the Irish figured prominently in most risings against African Americans in the 19th century. Partisan political antagonism also may have been a factor. Springfield's blacks, loyal to the local Republican machine, were not only voting against the Democratic Irish in local elections but competing with them for patronage jobs.

To personal revenge and ethnic and political rivalries Senechal adds another motive for violence, a motive based on her study of the victims of the Springfield riots. Some local pundits saw the riots as a sort of civic purgative and insisted that the mobs' wrath had been focused on the criminal element. But the gambling dens, dives, and whorehouses frequented by whites were untouched; and many of the black businesses that were ravaged (such as barber shops) were eminently respectable, even by the standards of a town that was home to the General Assembly. If anything, the Black Belt residents stood rather higher on the social and economic ladder than did most of the rioters; Senechal found that the incidence of home ownership among the victims was somewhat higher than in the city as a whole.

Other critics (especially those from out of town) characterized the assaults as indiscriminate, driven by an antiblack feeling so hysterical that it could not make distinctions among its victims. This comes closer to the truth, but Senechal's research suggests that in crucial ways it too misreads the nature of what happened.

"Historic victimology," Senechal notes, is not a technique that's been widely applied to cases of collective urban violence, but it proved especially fruitful in understanding what happened in Springfield: she suggests class resentment as the motive there. The mobs--there were several, working in different parts of the city over those two days--were not random in their aggression but picked their targets. The organizers of the guerrilla-style attacks of the second night, Senechal found, "aimed high up the black social ladder." The accepted explanation for William Donnegan's having been marked for attack was his marriage to a white woman. But there's evidence that Donnegan died because he was just too prosperous. As one mob member was heard to say, Donnegan had "too much property for a nigger." Senechal's conclusion: "Blacks who lived in a society where success might imperil them as much as the worst criminal behavior indeed faced a world of danger."

The case for color as the sole cause of the riots is further eroded by the fact that Jews, alone among Springfield's whites, were also singled out for attack. Senechal sees the victims in both cases as members of outcast groups, whom lower-class whites plausibly saw as a "danger to their sense of dignity and status."

Senechal argues persuasively that affluent whites shared their working-class neighbors' unease at the increased visibility of black people in Springfield's public ways. The Levee in particular was seen as a symptom of a serious civic disease. This conviction led better-off whites to legitimate the violence early on that first night, when the actions of working-class thugs were watched passively, even encouraged, by thousands of "good" Springfieldians.

But the lynchings were shocking proof that moral reform was not on the rioters' agenda, as Senechal explains. After a few days, influential whites began to see the riots as a challenge to their own authority and control (and their economic interests--they owned most of the buildings destroyed). What they'd believed to be a civic housecleaning quickly came to be seen as rebellion, not reform.

In various ways polite Springfield certainly acted as if they were under threat. They were brave enough in their calls for law and order, but all but one or two respectable citizens refused to testify against rioters in court. Passive sympathy was a factor, but so was fear; many potential witnesses and others were warned not to testify in the weeks after the riots. One disgusted editor railed that Springfield's problem wasn't black or white but yellow--the yellow, he said, that "is in the neck of every mother's son of us."

The voices that on Friday described the mobs as the city's saviors by Monday were calling them sinners. The turnabout was part civic face-saving and part the middle class's hypocritical denial of their personal role in encouraging the mayhem. Senechal adds that the riots revealed how poorly Springfield's middle class understood the nature of antiblack feeling among their white neighbors, insulated as they were from the realities of life both in the Black Belt and in the North End.

White racism in Springfield, Senechal makes clear, was not monolithic. White people of different classes, she argues, "disagreed over what the boundaries of white supremacy were or what constituted black challenges to the interracial status quo." When those disagreements became manifest in fire and bullets, she adds, "The city's white elite had no choice but to rewrite the script. . . . Overnight the rioters themselves became the object of 'reform,' the so-called urban pagans--criminals, drunks, and hoodlums." The smell of scapegoats pervaded the trials of those rioters actually brought into court. The "ringleaders" offered up were not typical rioters, but such socially marginal types as a woman and a foreign-born Jew with radical political sympathies. Every melodrama must have its villains.

Some weeks after the troops had decamped, the drifter Joe James was found guilty of murder in a trial of laughable unfairness. The prisoner, who had got religion while in jail, professed himself deserving of the gallows, although he never explicitly confessed to the murder with which he was charged. There was evidence that he was underage and thus safe from the death penalty; but his white lawyers complained that they weren't being paid enough to pursue the point, and he hanged anyway.

Except for a teenager shipped off to reform school, all but one of the rioters went free. The exception was a woman--dubbed the rioters' Joan of Arc by the press--who poisoned herself in jail rather than face a trial that, it seems clear in retrospect, would almost certainly have led to her acquittal. Indeed, the riots proved a feast for those with a taste for grim ironies. The woman George Richardson was accused of raping turned out not to have been assaulted after all. She admitted that she'd concocted the story of an attack by a black man to conceal a liaison with a white lover. She and her husband left Springfield soon thereafter and resettled in Chicago; no charges were ever filed against her for her false report.

It is impossible to read Senechal on Springfield in 1908 without thinking of race relations today. That era came a generation after a period of explosive social advance for African Americans--emancipation and Reconstruction; we are a generation past the civil rights movement. In that era, as in ours, the well-meaning were frustrated and exhausted in spirit, dismayed at what was widely interpreted as failure of social control within the black community. Earlier promises of integration had faltered, and whites and blacks had little direct experience of each other; ignorance left people on both sides of the color line prey to stereotyping, even to paranoia about each other. Then as now, race had slipped from the top of the domestic political agenda; as long as the status quo was unchallenged, most whites were happy to leave the issue in the hands of the police, politicians, and do-gooders. Then as now, fear of black crime among whites was exaggerated, fed by a press preoccupied with the more lurid aspects of life in African American communities. (The Sun-Times's hyperventilated coverage of August's blackout on the west side would have been familiar to any reader of the Springfield white press in the summer of 1908.) Such problems as drug abuse and violence, common to the poor and uneducated of all colors, came to be identified in the public mind as "black problems."

In short, whites did not fear blacks themselves in 1908 but what black people had come to represent to them: the problems associated with life in the cities--poverty, crime, and disorder.

Springfield, like the rest of the country, learned nothing from its experience. Most of the black families forced to flee during the riots eventually moved back. They found whites determined to reestablish, even expand, their social dominance over local blacks. Blacks' access to patronage jobs was reduced, for example, and discrimination by merchants continued. Cecil Partee was one of the black lawmakers from Chicago who had to stay in private homes in the Springfield of the 1940s and even '50s because the downtown hotels refused them rooms. In the 1970s, the city's school system was ordered desegregated by a federal court; in the 1980s, its at-large system of city government was struck down on the grounds that it deprived local African American voters of equal representation.

Those changes, though salutary, have left the underlying dynamic of race relations much the same. White fear of black crime, for instance, is less virulently expressed but just as uninformed as it was in 1908. (There are white appraisers for Springfield real estate firms who refuse to venture anywhere on the city's east side even in broad daylight; they ask their African American colleagues to do jobs there for them.) Reaction to the most recent attempt to build scattered-site public housing in Springfield suggests that whites in most neighborhoods still feel threatened by even a single black family.

A couple of years ago, racist graffiti appeared on the walls of Lincoln's tomb in Springfield. Though the vandalism was universally condemned locally, most commentators seemed more offended by the insult to Lincoln's burial place than by the sentiments expressed upon it.

The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 by Roberta Senechal, University of Illinois Press, $29.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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