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Under God

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Bethany House
Released: October 2004
ISBN 0764200098

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The Dark Side of Lincoln's Home: Springfield Riot (August 1908)

By Toby Mac and Michael Tait – Most of what we once knew about the Springfield Riot is wrong. For years historians looked at the evidence before them in written and oral accounts and made assumptions based on what might seem like commonsense premises.

The riot occurred because the lower-class white population became frustrated by jobs being taken away from them.

The riot occurred because there had been an influx of southerners who already burned with prejudice against blacks.

The riot occurred because there had been a large influx of black residents into the city, causing unrest and even a housing shortage.

The riot occurred because poor, often drunk, roustabout whites were looking to cause trouble.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Springfield, capital city of Illinois and hometown of Abraham Lincoln, in August 1908 had a healthy economy that felt no effects yet from the recession that gripped other areas. The black population had actually decreased in recent years, and those blacks who did live in the area lived within very specific neighborhoods, barely competing at all for homes and less so for jobs. Freedom did not mean an end to prejudice, and there were many positions for which no person of color would be hired. At the same time, the demographics of those involved in the riot show them to be mostly single men in their mid-twenties, gainfully employed, and of Illinois birth, not southern blood. They were young men who'd never been in trouble with the law before, who very well may have gone to church every week. But on that August weekend, none of that made any difference. A spark struck and a city nearly collapsed in rage and anger.

The first tinder to be placed was the murder of a railroad engineer, Clergy Ballard, a month earlier. The suspect, a non-resident black man named Joe James, had been arrested and was awaiting trial. Added to this was a horrific tale of rape and assault on Mabel Hallam, who pointed the finger at black caretaker George Richardson.

"Dragged From Her Bed and Outraged By a Negro" screamed the headline of the Illinois State Journal.

But Mrs. Hallam was lying. She'd been having an affair with a white man and, caught in her web of fabrication, did the only thing she could think of to free herself. She mixed race and rape into a Molotov cocktail that exploded on the steps of the local jail on Friday, August 14, 1908.

Faced with an innocent man and a bloodthirsty crowd that would not hear the truth, the sheriff tried to escort Richardson out of town in a borrowed car. Once the mob caught wind of the plan, the gathering turned violent. They destroyed both the car and the restaurant owned by the man who'd loaned the car. They moved through the city, assaulting blacks and their businesses, moving forward with unstoppable rage.

They reached the Levee, the black business district, and destroyed almost twenty businesses, owned by either Jews or blacks. Then they turned to Badlands, filled with African American–owned homes.

On their march, a black barber, Scott Burton, tried to defend his shop and was shot to death, his corpse then taken, hung from a tree, and pockmarked with bullets.

Only the eventual arrival of the militia, called in by the Illinois governor, broke the day's violence. It was a calm that would not last.

The next night, the mob gathered again, this time making their way toward the capital. Word had reached them that many of the black residents had taken shelter in the State Arsenal across the street. The building, however, was guarded by a portion of the five thousand National Guard troops who'd been called in. Frustrated by their defeat, one in the crowd suggested an easier victim who lived not too far away.

William Donnegan, a fair-skinned black man, was now eighty years old. He was a cobbler by trade and had made shoes for Abraham Lincoln himself.

The two were even known to have become friends. Wealthy, quiet, and unassuming, Donnegan had lived in Springfield for years.

The mob took him from his house, slashed his throat, and hung him from a tree in the local school.

It was to be the final atrocity for the mob. Enough troops marched in to finally disperse the crowd for good. The Springfield Riot, though random violence and destruction occurred for weeks afterward, was over.

Two black residents had been killed.

Four white residents also.

Hundreds were wounded.

More than forty houses of blacks had been burned to nothing.

An all-white jury convicted one rioter. The charge? Theft. His sentence was thirty days.

It is a faceless throng in which the basest hatreds of men can come to life and cowards can scream, "Lincoln freed you. Now we'll show you where you belong" without a single reproach. That Abraham Lincoln's name was raised is perhaps the bitter irony in this. It is an interesting dichotomy to think over the links Lincoln had with the city. The Great Emancipator who, in the end, sacrificed his life in the cause of freedom for all was now forever coupled with a populace known for their prejudice, blood-thirstiness, and violent anger. The two sides of America's past could not be more clearly delineated.

If any good came from the riot, it was that the violence of Springfield prompted a meeting in New York in January 1909 among concerned blacks and white reformers on the topic of race. From this gathering grew what would become the NAACP: the largest and most powerful organization for the fight against racial discrimination and for equal civil rights. Its birth, forged in the blood of victims and the ashes of destruction, was a mere foreshadowing of the long fight they would wage through the years. A fight that would take many more lives and leave our nation forever scarred. And although much progress has been made since the 1960s, the fight against predjudice continues.


America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

Excerpted from:
Under God by tobyMac and Michael Tait (with WallBuilders)
Copyright © 2004; ISBN 0764200098
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.


For more information on this book, visit the Under God Web site.

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