In Land of Lincoln, Long-Buried Traces of a Race Riot Come to the Surface

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tags: archaeology, Abraham Lincoln, lynching, riots

Recently, archaeologists uncovered the remains of five houses that once stood in a historically black neighborhood in Springfield, Illinois, until they were burned in a race riot 110 years ago. The carcasses of the structures are the last remaining witnesses to the lie that one Mabel Hallam told on a Thursday night in August of 1908 that set the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator,” aflame.

A married white woman, Hallam claimed that summer she had been raped in her home by an unknown black man. The next morning, police searched for her alleged assailant, picking up black laborers who had been in her white working-class neighborhood. Hallam pointed to a brick carrier named George Richardson, identifying him as her rapist. Richardson was subsequently jailed alongside Joe James, another black man, who had been accused in July, on shaky circumstantial evidence, of fatally stabbing a white man during a break-in. By the afternoon, a white mob gathered outside the jail. Talk of a lynching spread.

Lynchings are most often associated with the Jim Crow-era South. The Equal Justice Initiative—the non-profit that opened the first U.S. monument to victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama, earlier this year— has documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. But EJI has also identified about 300 lynchings in other states during the same period. Such an event was not unheard of in Illinois, which had passed anti-lynching legislation in 1905 to prevent mob violence against African-Americans. And, as in the South, rape allegations like Hallam's were among the most common catalysts for a lynching. Those accusations could also serve as the pretense for violence directed at black communities in general.

The Springfield sheriff watched the crowd grow. He hatched a plan to sneak Richardson and James out of the jail for their own safety, sending the prisoners north with the help of Harry Loper, a white restaurant owner who had a car. As the sun set, Richardson and James were miles away from danger, and the sheriff announced to the mob that the two prisoners were no longer in Springfield, assuming the crowd would disband and go home. He was sorely mistaken. A full-on riot began; the mob destroyed Loper’s restaurant and set his car on fire.

Read entire article at Smithsonian.com

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