NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Book Reviews

Springfield's race riot: an overdue history


Roberta Senechal. The Sociogenesis of a RaceRiot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Pp. 231 with illustrations, appendix, bibliography and index. $29.95 (cloth).

Illinoisans who in the 1960s deplored southern racial violence, or in the 1980s denounced South Africa's apartheid, may need a sobering and uncomfortable reminder that their own state has a blemished heritage of persistent racism. During the territorial and early statehood years, slavery was forbidden in theory but widespread in practice. Proslavery zeal persisted through the antebellum and Civil War years. In modern times racial violence has erupted in many Illinois cities, from Cairo to Cicero.

Perhaps the most dramatic and troubling incidents occurred early in the 20th century, when ugly riots engulfed three major cities: Springfield (1908), East St. Louis (1917) and Chicago (1919). During that period Illinois was unmatched in its record of mob assaults against African Americans.

Roberta Senechal's detailed study of the Springfield riot is the last and the best of a veritable trilogy that includes Elliott Rudwick's Race Riot at East St. Louis (1972) and William Tuttle's Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (1970). All three make informative if somber reading; Senechal's is the most sophisticated and instructive.

For more than a half century, Springfield's race riot was shrouded in a combination of civic amnesia and anecdotal mythology. Mentioned in college textbooks on black history and the sociology of racial violence, it was scarcely known or discussed in the capital itself. When this reviewer moved to Springfield in 1970, he was surprised to discover that this tragic milestone in modern American urban disorder was largely ignored or suppressed in local schools, at historical society meetings and among the many civic memorials. Senechal's book tells the whole sad tale in more readable prose than the term "sociogenesis" in her title would imply.

In the heat of mid-August 1908, Springfield was convulsed by two days of virtually unchecked violence that left six people dead (two by lynching), dozens of downtown businesses damaged and scores of black homes destroyed. It took several thousand state militia to restore order. The nation's press covered the riot as a major story, noting the irony of racial mayhem in Abraham Lincoln's hometown just months before a gala centennial celebration of his birth.

What distinguishes this book from previous studies of Springfield's and other riots are five qualities: context, evidence, perspective, characterization and interpretation. Senechal properly sets the stage by summarizing the scope and nature of urban racial violence in the early years of the new century, thereby enabling readers to understand events in Springfield as part of a national pattern. Second, she carefully mines not only such familiar sources as press accounts, but also the untapped evidence of census returns and oral histories. As to perspective, the author has been sufficiently detached intellectually and emotionally to disregard the prior assumptions and judgments that have burdened Springfield lore. A genuine newcomer and outsider to the subject, she approaches it objectively. Fourth, one of the pleasures of this account is the vivid portraits it offers of certain riot participants. Senechal breathes life into such figures as Joe James, a black drifter whose reported crime helped ignite the riot and who later was convicted and hanged for murder; Abe Raymer, a riot ringleader whose swift prosecution was attributed by some observers to another community virus, anti-Semitism; and members of the Ferguson and Donnegan families, middle-class blacks who were riot victims.

These four virtues culminate in the author's analysis and interpretation. By systematically probing the community, the rioters and their victims, and then testing her findings against various theories, Senechal totally reinterprets the causes and conduct of the riot.

Conventional wisdom has explained such racial outbreaks with the "social strain" theory, which argues that rapid black migration, neighborhood incursion and job competition brought cities like Springfield to the boiling point. Senechal rejects this theory for providing "an incomplete and oversimplified picture." Census data reveal no surge in black population and no major shift in housing or job patterns in the 1900s. The riot's well-springs were deeper and less obvious. Essentially it was a frightened reaction by working-class people whose homes and jobs were somewhat separated from those of blacks, making them hostile toward status rivals whom they did not know as neighbors or coworkers. In short, it was distance, not familiarity, that bred contempt on August 14-15, 1908.

Further complicating the picture was the inconsistent behavior of many middle-class whites. At the outset they tacitly or actively supported the rioting as a form of vigilante reform to cleanse the city of perceived vice and corruption. When the riot evolved into a virtual pogrom of indiscriminate terrorism, however, these same respectable whites became alarmed and resistant since they depended upon blacks as domestic servants or workplace employees.

Other fresh judgments, too lengthy to detail here, are that simple revenge was a motive for some rioters, that transplanted southerners and their assumed racist habits had nothing to do with the riot, and that the alleged permanent exodus of blacks after the riot was instead a brief escape during the peak of trouble.

This dispassionate and perceptive study thus discredits much of the superstition and superficiality that has marked popular accounts of the Springfield riot. It is that rarest of historical efforts, the definitive if not final word on its subject.

Cullom Davis is professor of history at Sangamon State University and director of the Lincoln Legal Papers. He has conducted interviews and other research on the Springfield race riot.

April 1991/Illinois Issues/27

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents||Back to Illinois Issues 1991|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library