Springfield Race Riot: The Riot in Lincoln’s Hometown that Sparked the NAACP’s Founding on His 100th Birthday 6 Months Later
The riot began the evening of Friday, Aug. 14, 1908, when a white crowd gathered outside the Sangamon County Jail, apparently intending to lynch two black prisoners:
- Joe James was a black man convicted of attacking and killing Clergy Ballard, a white mining engineer, in Ballard’s home early July 5, 1908. The attack was one of two incidents that helped inspire the riot. An all-white jury in Springfield later convicted James of Ballard’s murder, largely on circumstantial evidence. James was hanged on Oct. 23, 1908.
- and George Richardson, suspected of the rape of a white woman, Mabel Hallam, the wife of a streetcar conductor, whose Aug. 13 report that a black man had sexually assaulted her in her home on North Fifth Street kicked off the riot, recanted her identification of Richardson on Sept. 1. Richardson, a hod carrier, had been arrested solely because he happened to be working nearby. It later developed that she had not been assaulted at all, but had been entertaining a white lover. She was never punished for the false report, although the Hallam family moved out of Springfield a few months later. Charges were dropped against Richardson, who remained in Springfield.
Via a ruse, Sheriff Charles Werner had the two prisoners spirited out of town. The frustrated crowd turned its anger first on restaurateur Harry Loper, who had driven James and Richardson to safety. Harry Loper said the next day he had hoped to prevent bloodshed. “I have been through one riot in Cincinnati in ’83,” he told reporters. “… It was to avoid loss of life that I took these men out of town.” Loper’s car, parked in front of the building, was set on fire, and rioters broke into the elegant restaurant, stealing everything they could and smashing the rest. Loper escaped through the basement. No one was ever convicted of participating in the attack.
The rioters then turned their anger to “the Levee,” a stretch of saloons and gambling parlors, many black-operated, on East Washington Street, and “the Badlands,” a black residential neighborhood along the Madison Street railroad tracks.
At least 11 people died and many more were injured in connection with the Springfield race riot of August 1908. Another casualty was the image that Springfield, Abraham Lincoln’s home town, was immune to the racial discord that characterized American society in the early 20th century.
An estimated 40 homes occupied by blacks and two dozen black-owned businesses were destroyed in the riot, and hundreds of blacks left Springfield in fear. Thousands of state militia, encamped on the Statehouse lawn, finally gained control of the streets.
Abraham “Abe” Raymer, 20, a Russian
" >Jew from St. Louis, had worked as a waiter, vegetable peddler and theater barker in Springfield. He moved to Springfield from St. Louis a year before the riot. With few local connections, perhaps he was easy to blame.
Raymer was suspected of playing a major role in nearly all of the most serious riot violence: the lynchings of both Burton and Donnegan, the destruction of Loper’s restaurant, and the arsons that destroyed dozens of homes and businesses belonging to blacks. Arrested after the Donnegan killing, Raymer reportedly was badly beaten by police. “(T)he blows given him and his screams for mercy, as well as the officers’ threats to kill him if he did not tell more, could plainly be heard from without,” the Illinois State Register reported on Aug. 21.
During Raymer’s first trial, Donnegan’s wife testified she knew him because he delivered vegetables to her house the previous spring and that Raymer was among those who entered the house and dragged her 84-year-old husband outside. Loper himself testified that Raymer was in the forefront of the mob, saying he had Raymer in his rifle sights while the rioters were in front of his restaurant. Loper said he didn’t fire for fear of hurting bystanders.
Despite such evidence, Raymer was acquitted three times — of murdering Donnegan, of being in the mob that attacked Loper’s, and of rioting. He was convicted of petty larceny after a fourth trial in late December — for stealing Major Otis Duncan’s sword from Duncan’s ransacked home. The jury determined the value of the sword to be $13. Raymer, the only person convicted in the riot trials, was fined $25 and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
The failure of the Raymer prosecutions led authorities the following June to drop charges against all those, both white and black, who still faced prosecution in connection with the riots. (One rioter, 15-year-old Roy Young, had admitted stealing guns from a pawnshop and setting fire to black homes and was sentenced to the state reformatory.)
Kate Howard (1866-1908), a rooming house operator who allegedly goaded white mobs to arson and lynching during the riot, took poison and died while being arrested 10 days after the riots. She died at the Sangamon County Jail. Howard, called by sympathetic whites “the Springfield Joan of Arc,” had admitted being in the crowd that destroyed Loper’s Restaurant in the early hours of the riot.
“What the hell are you fellows afraid of?” witnesses reported Howard saying. “Come on and I will show you how to do it. Women want protection and this seems to be the only way to get it.”
Howard was released on bond in the Loper’s case, but was rearrested Aug. 26 on charges that she had helped lynch Burton. Before being taken to jail, she asked to be allowed to use the bathroom. There, she apparently swallowed the poison — possibly cyanide or strychnine. She collapsed and died as she entered the jail.
Considering the time (6 months prior to the official founding of the NAACP by mostly Jews on Lincoln’s 100th birthday) and the place of the Springfield Race Riot (home of Abraham Lincoln), in addition to the possible mob being provoked by a Jewish immigrant who arrived to Springfield only one year previously and seemingly had a hand in everything, it’s hard to at least consider the possibility that Raymer may have been employed to instigate the riots for an Illuminati agenda.
While a higher concentration of blacks in the population could be assigned as one reason for violence against blacks in other regions, in a city like Springfield, Illinois, the population of blacks had been steadily declining (from 7.2 percent in 1890 to 5.7 percent in 1910) (Senechal 1990, p. 60) as compared to the white population, which had risen. Black and white coalminers had coexisted mainly peacefully (Senechal 1990, pp. 58–59). Blacks generally occupied menial positions in Springfield and were not a threat to the economic prosperity of the whites. There were a few middle-class black families in the city who were mentioned in biographical accounts of city residents before 1880.
Before the 1908 riot the white majority had decried the behavior of black people living in the Badlands and Levee neighborhoods as the major reason for animosity toward them. Newspaper editorials lambasted their “drinking, gambling, drug use, criminal acts and general disorderliness” (Senechal 1990, p. 73). Several influential whites in the city felt after the fact that the riot was a sign of the decaying morality of the population as a whole.
Despite its importance to Springfield and to the early 20th century stirrings of the civil rights movement, the Springfield Race Riot faded into obscurity for nearly 60 years. Recent research, however, has gone a long way toward repairing that omission. Here are some places to look for additional information.
- *Roberta Senechal’s In Lincoln’s Shadow: The 1908 Race Riot in Springfield, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 1980 (original title: The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois in 1908) is the definitive analysis of the riot. Portions are available through Google Play. See also Senechal’s shorter article, “Race Riot,” on Illinois Periodicals Online.
- *William English Walling’s groundbreaking article in the September 1908 Independent, “The Race War in the North,” set the stage for formation of the NAACP.
- *James Krohe Jr. anticipated the revival of interest in the riot with his 1973 pamphlet (reprinted in 1996) for the Sangamon County Historical Society, Summer of Rage: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908. It is available through the society.
- *Interested people can take a walking tour of riot sites. The Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau has an online brochure.
- *A six-part video documentary, including interviews with Roberta Senechal and Springfield historian Cullom Davis, is available through YouTube.
- *The city of Springfield produced its own three-part documentary for its observance of the riot centennial in 2008. Entitled Springfield Had No Shame, it also is available on YouTube. (Thanks to Andrew Trello for the reminder.)
- *The University of Illinois Springfield’s collection of oral history interviews includes more than two dozen memories of the riot – notably including an interview with William Lee, a railroad worker and active riot participant.
- The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library presented an exhibit, “Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908” in 2008. A booklet that accompanied the exhibit, curated by Carole Merritt, is available online.
- The State Journal-Register published a series of articles on the riot during 2008, including this interactive map of sites that played roles in the violence.
- The Results of Phase II Archaeological Investigations … For the Proposed Carpenter Street Underpass, Springfield Rail Improvements Project, by Floyd Mansberger and Christopher Stratton (2016), includes every known photo of the riot aftermath, along with lists and maps of buildings damaged in the Levee and Badlands districts. The Mansberger/Stratton report also provides important background on social conditions in those areas prior to the riot and much more.