Reverend Richard Killmer: The Springfield Race Riots of 1908 and the National Park Service

Reverend Richard Killmer

The evening of August 14, 1908, in Springfield – the capital of Illinois and the home of Abraham Lincoln – marked the beginning of a horrific race-motivated riot.

A crowd of about 5,000 white people, demanding the release of George Richardson, accused of raping a white woman, and Joe James, accused of murdering a white man, looted and damaged businesses and homes belonging to blacks, as well as plundered Jews. owned businesses. The Illinois governor called in the Illinois National Guard to bring the riots under control, but not before two members of the black community were lynched.

The police sensed the danger and as a result the county sheriff – with the help of a white business owner – secretly brought the two prisoners out the back door and put them on a train which took them. transported to another prison in Bloomington. Once the crowd learned of this move, its members erupted in violence, marching towards areas where African Americans lived.

The terror inflicted on Springfield’s black community led thousands to flee the city, some never to return. Fortunately enough troops arrived in the capital to prevent further damage, but the blitzkrieg attacks on black residents continued into August and September of that year.

Of the two black men charged, who were at the center of racial violence, James was ultimately tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of a white man. Richardson was released after his accuser confessed that she lied about the rape.

Six months later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed, which played a major role in the civil rights movement in the United States.

The U.S. National Park Service initiated a special site resource study near Madison Street and the 10th Street Railroad Corridor in Springfield, where the 1908 Springfield Race Riot began. The study, instituted by the US Congress through the Springfield Race Riot Study Act of 2020, will determine whether the area should be designated a national monument.

A special resource study assesses 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 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 down in the 1908 riot in an urban section several blocks from the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, where the riot started. St. John’s Hospital recently built a new health clinic adjacent to the study area that includes an exhibit and a healing garden, both dedicated to Springfield Riot victims and those who provided care .

While some may think there shouldn’t be a monument that reminds us of a race riot that happened over 100 years ago, religious traditions would be different. Many faith communities believe it is important to acknowledge the harmful acts we do to others.

On Yom Kippur, Jews apologize to people they have hurt. Catholics confess to a priest the hurtful behavior they have done to others. Protestants often have a corporate confession that gives the whole congregation an opportunity to acknowledge wrongdoing together. Ramadan offers Muslims an opportunity to reflect on their lives and commit to increasing their faithfulness to God.

After acknowledgment of their sinfulness, believers hear an affirmation of forgiveness and, in some traditions, an encouragement to work things out with those they have hurt. Confession and forgiveness are not just about recent events, but can certainly be about past sins, including violence, racism, and misogyny.

Remembering events like the Springfield Race Riots of 1908 can bring healing. Ignoring such historical events neglects the pain of the victims and can lead to the danger of repeating such acts.

The United States designates national monuments in places like Springfield to remember all of our history, so that, as a nation, we can heal.

Reverend Richard Killmer is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Yarmouth.


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