Race Riot Sparks Formation of NAACP
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the most established and effective civil rights organizations in the U.S., traditionally cites Feb. 12, 1909—the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln—as its founding date. The organization’s spark, however, was a gruesome race riot in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, on Aug. 14-15, 1908.
Racial tensions were high in Springfield the summer of 1908. One black man, Joe James, was jailed in July for allegedly attempting to assault a white woman and killing her father. Then in August Mabel Hallam, a white woman, claimed that another black man, George Richardson, had raped her. Fed up, an enraged mob gathered at the jail to lynch the two prisoners on Aug. 14, 1908.
The sheriff whisked the prisoners out of town, and the mob turned its fury on Springfield’s black community. During the two-day race riot there were at least seven fatalities, including the lynching of two black men, untold numbers of people injured, and 40 homes and 24 black-owned businesses destroyed. Although 107 indictments were brought against the rioters, only one man was ever convicted of a crime—for the offence of stealing a saber from a member of the National Guard. Mabel Hallam later admitted she had made up the story about George Richardson raping her. Joe James was convicted of murder and hanged.
This savage race riot, committed in the very hometown of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, disturbed many people. A white social worker, Mary White Ovington, read an article about the riot written by a white journalist, William English Walling. Moved by the conclusion of Walling’s article, in which he suggested an organization should be formed to help blacks and protect the civil rights of all “colored” people, Ovington and another white social worker, Dr. Henry Moskowitz, met with Walling in his New York City apartment in January 1909 to discuss forming a civil rights organization. They invited many prominent Americans, both black and white, to a conference scheduled for Feb. 12, 1909—hence the traditional founding date for the NAACP.
In fact, the meeting did not actually happen until three months later, leading to the formation of a group calling itself the National Negro Committee, which changed its name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at its second conference on May 30, 1910. The NAACP was incorporated in 1911 with a mission “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”
The Springfield Race Riot that sparked the formation of the NAACP was reported in this article, published by the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Illinois) on the front page of its Aug. 15, 1908, issue:
Springfield, Ill., in Throes of Race Riot
Negro Porter Lynched and Body Riddled with Bullets—Troops Rushed to Capital City to Aid in Maintaining Order—Trouble Followed when a Negro, Who Assaulted White Woman, Is Spirited Away—Negro Residents Routed and Stoned—Houses in the Eastern Part of City on Fire—Bloomington Fire Department Called Out
Special to the News Democrat:
Springfield, Ill., Aug. 15.—At 3 a.m. this morning a young negro whose name is supposed to be Charley Hunt was lynched by a crowd of angry citizens. Hunt was a porter in a hotel. When captured he protested his innocence as to knowing anything about the assault on Mrs. Hallam. The crowd, however, turned a deaf ear to the pleadings of the negro and he was strung up to a tree and his body riddled with bullets.
The Bloomington fire department was called out to assist in keeping the conflagration which is raging from spreading.
Springfield, Ill., Aug. 15.—Springfield is in the hands of a mob of enraged citizens, who began last night to reap vengeance on negro residents for an assault committed Friday by George Richardson, a negro, on Mrs. Hallam, a white woman.
Gov. Deneen was asked by Sheriff Werner to furnish him with all the troops he could. He sent orders to the following commands to come at once:
Companies G and L, Fifth infantry, Peoria
Company D, Fifth infantry, Bloomington
Company A, Fifth infantry, Pekin
Company F, Fifth infantry, Decatur
Company F, Third infantry, Pontiac
They will arrive here in the morning.
Orders were also sent to the following companies to be in readiness to come to Springfield any time:
Company M, Fourth infantry, Champaign
Company A, Fourth infantry, Arcola
Company B, Fifth infantry, Taylorville
Battery A, Danville
East End in Flames
At 1 o’clock this morning the whole east end of the town burst into flames, the torch having been applied to several negro houses by the desperate men.
Two men are dead and probably two score others are injured, mostly negroes.
The rabble is sweeping through the streets attacking every negro met. All the local militia are on duty, and half a dozen companies from other cities are rushing here on special trains. Still other companies are ordered to hold themselves in reserve.
The fire department is helpless to combat the flames in the negro quarter on account of the threatening attitude of the mob toward firemen.
Dead: J. S. Scott, Louis Johnson
The injured are:
Fred Ramsey of the Gatling gun section of the Illinois National Guard, struck on arm by stone.
Oscar Dahlkamp, policeman, struck over eye by rock.
Albert Blerline, employed at post office, shot in hip by stray bullet.
Phillip Pollock of Chicago, badly lacerated, while aiding Mayor Reece in escaping from mob at Loper’s.
John A. Snell, shot in shoulder by negro.
Edwin Bingham, struck on head with brick.
E. W. Chafin, candidate for president of the United States on the Prohibition ticket, struck on head with brick.
Rev. T. D. Logan, struck on head with brick.
Robert Sturgis, waiter at Loper’s restaurant, artery of left forearm cut by shot.
Richardson and another negro wanted for murder were stealthily taken from the Springfield jail Friday evening and rushed to Bloomington, whence they were later taken to Peoria.
It is thought that with the arrival of the out-of-town troops the streets will be cleared and order will be restored.
Negroes in various parts of town have been attacked, and in some cases have turned with considerable effect on their assailants.
Cavalrymen Are Disarmed
A cavalryman of Troop B attempted to separate the combatants and was nearly overwhelmed by those in pursuit of several negroes.
A call for help brought several other cavalrymen to the scene, but they were all disarmed and their guns carried away by the rioters. Most of the members of Troop B of Taylorville are on guard around the jail, whence Geo. Richardson, the negro who assaulted Mrs. Hallam at her home, was removed early Friday to Bloomington. The rioters who had gathered in front of the jail following the incarceration of Richardson were enraged by the ruse practiced by the sheriff in removing him.
A company of firemen was sent down the street in front of the jail in a spectacular run, attracting the attention of the crowd while Richardson and another negro, charged with a murder, were stealthily taken from the jail, across the Sangamon river, and placed on a train bound for Bloomington.
Negro Resorts Looted
Finding that the negroes were gone, the mob amused itself for a time by looting negro resorts in Washington street. The amusement of the mob was tragedy for the negroes, many of whom were roughly handled and beaten with pieces of their own furniture.
The situation became so serious that Gov. Deneen sent hurried orders for extra troops. The local militia had been called out earlier in the evening to prevent trouble that was feared at that time.
The Springfield militia, after the shooting of the two white men tonight seemed powerless to control the rioters; and when the automobile which had taken the two prisoners from the jail to the train across the river returned to Springfield driven by its owner, Major Harry T. Loper, commissary of the Second brigade, Illinois National Guard, a large number of the rioters assembled around the machine in front of Loper’s restaurant.
Mob Wrecks Restaurant
Despite a guard of police and members of the Fifth infantry with a Gatling gun, the crowd wrecked the restaurant, tearing everything to pieces, demolished the automobile and set it on fire. The fire department was summoned to extinguish the burning automobile and another struggle ensued when the militiamen tried to drive back the rabble to allow the firemen to play a hose on the burning machine. Three members of the Gatling gun squad were injured during the melee and the rioters took several guns from the soldiers.
These captured guns were used to finish wrecking the restaurant. When the mob reached the bottom of the stairway leading to the buffet of the restaurant, they found the dead body of Louis Johnson, 16 years old.
A doctor who examined the body said the boy had been shot in the neck, where there was a wound, but another doctor who came up later said that the boy’s death was due to a broken back.
For more information, visit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People website.
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