Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Bethany House
Released: October 2004
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
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
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
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,
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.
— ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Under God by tobyMac and Michael
Tait (with WallBuilders)
Copyright © 2004; ISBN 0764200098
Published by Bethany
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
For more information on this book, visit the Under
God Web site.
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