The evening of Aug. 14, 1908, in Springfield — the capital of Illinois and a home of Abraham Lincoln — marks the start of a horrific racially motivated riot.
A mob of about 5,000 whites, demanding the release of both George Richardson, accused of raping a white woman, and Joe James, accused of murder of a white man, looted and damaged Black-owned businesses and homes as well as looting some Jewish-owned businesses. The Illinois governor called the Illinois National Guard to bring the riots under control, but not before two members of the Black community were lynched.
The police sensed danger, and consequently the county sheriff — with help from a white business owner — secretly removed the two prisoners through the back door and put them on a train that transported them to another jail in Bloomington. Once the mob learned of this move, its members erupted in violence, marching toward the areas where African Americans lived.
The terror inflicted upon the Black community in Springfield led thousands to flee the city, some never to return. Fortunately, enough troops arrived in the capital to prevent further damage, but hit-and-run attacks against Black residents continued through August and into September of that year.
Of the two accused Black men, who were the main focus of the racial violence, James was eventually tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of a white man. Richardson was set free after his accuser confessed that she lied about being raped.
Six months later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was created, which has played a major role in the civil rights movement in the United States.
The U.S. National Park Service has launched a special resource study of the site near Madison Street and the 10th Street Rail Corridor in Springfield, where the 1908 Springfield Race Riot began. The study, instituted by the U.S. Congress through the Springfield Race Riot Study Act of 2020, will determine if the area should be designated a national monument.
A special resource study evaluates the eligibility of an area to be recommended for designation as a unit in the national park system. Regardless of the outcome of the study, new units of the national park system can only be established by an act of Congress or by presidential proclamation, which could be done by President Biden.
The study area contains the structural remains of five homes that were burned during the 1908 riot within an urban section several blocks from the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, which is where the riot began. St. John’s Hospital recently constructed a new health clinic adjacent to the study area that features an exhibit and healing garden, both of which are dedicated to the victims of the Springfield riot and to those who provided care.
While some may think that there should not be a monument that reminds us of a race riot that happened more 100 years ago, religious traditions would differ. Many religious communities believe that it is important to acknowledge the harmful acts we do to other people.
During Yom Kippur, Jews apologize to those people they have hurt. Catholics confess to a priest the hurtful behavior they have done to others. Protestants often have corporate confession that provides the whole congregation an opportunity to acknowledge wrongdoing together. Ramadan provides an opportunity for Muslims to reflect on their lives and to vow to increase their faithfulness to God.
After the acknowledgement of their sinfulness, people of faith hear an affirmation of pardon and, in some traditions, encouragement to make things right with the people they have harmed. Confession and pardon are not just about recent events, but certainly can be about past sins, including violence and racism and misogyny.
Remembering events like the 1908 Springfield Race Riots can bring healing. Ignoring such historical events neglects the pain of the victims and can lead to the danger of doing such acts again.
The United States designates national monuments in places like Springfield in order to remember our full history, so that, as a nation, we can heal.
Rev. Richard Killmer is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Yarmouth.
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