BLOOMINGTON — The Springfield Race Riot of Aug. 14-15, 1908, when thousands of white residents rampaged through the city’s black areas destroying life and property, remains one of the darkest chapters in Illinois history.
And Bloomington, although 60 miles to the north, found itself closely tied to the unfolding crisis.
On the evening of Aug. 14, a mob numbering 5,000 to 10,000 descended on the Sangamon County jail fully intending to lynch two African-American men — Joe James, accused of murdering a white man, and George Richardson, wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
Fortunately, Sangamon County Sheriff Charles Werner had seen to the temporary transfer of the two accused men beforehand. Guarded by several deputies, James and Richardson were sped out of Springfield by automobile and placed on a northbound Chicago & Alton passenger train to Bloomington, where they were held at the McLean County Jail.
Meanwhile, the enraged rabble, unable to get their hands on the two men, turned on Springfield’s African-American community, rioting through the black commercial district and residential neighborhood. The mob set fire to buildings and lynched two African-American men who had no connection to the alleged crimes. Thousands more white residents came out to watch black homes and businesses burn, and when firefighters attempted put out the flames, the crowd cut their hoses.
National Guardsmen from Springfield and elsewhere played a key role in restoring order. Bloomington troopers arrived in the state capital the morning after the initial spasm of violence, bolstering the ranks of those already on patrol.
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 blacks fled Springfield, with the countryside north of the capital “covered with Negroes, each with a little bundle of belongings.” According to The Pantagraph, the refugees “seem in the greatest terror and are travelling as rapidly as their baggage will permit … going they know not where.”
On Aug. 16, the Rev. Henry Sallie related his harrowing escape from Springfield to a packed audience at Bloomington’s Mount Pisgah Baptist Church. Sallie, the owner of a bicycle shop and lunch counter, was having supper at home when set upon by the mob. Realizing that any attempt to defend his property meant likely death, he escaped by jumping out a rear window. Once outside, he joined panicked African Americans fleeing the onrushing mob as one would a “tidal wave.”
A fair number of these Springfield evacuees ended up in Bloomington to stay with friends, family or Good Samaritans.
Race relations were tense in Bloomington as well. On Aug. 17, a “miniature riot” broke out on West Market Street at the C&A bridge, where a crowd of whites hurled insults and then rocks at two African-American men until one of them emptied a revolver in the direction of his tormentors. Luckily, no one was killed or wounded in this exchange.
In a pointed editorial, The Pantagraph reminded its readers of the particularly ugly character of all-too-common anti-black mob violence in the north. “A southern lynching … does not aim at driving the Negro out so much as intimidating and keeping him down,” it read. “But the northern mob undertakes to change the character of the population. It aims to the whole Negro race and compels the innocent and the guilty alike to move on. In involves pillage, loot and plunder.”
Northern race riots, in other words, were a form of “ethnic cleansing,” though that term was not yet in use.
During George Richardson’s stay in the McLean County Jail, The Pantagraph reported (though thankfully in less than sensationalistic terms) his “checkered career” that included manslaughter charges and several years in the Joliet penitentiary. A grand jury indicted Richardson on rape charges several days after he arrived in Bloomington, though the simmering “race trouble” back home prevented his swift arraignment.
About a week later, Richardson’s accuser changed her story, swearing to an affidavit he was not her attacker. Accordingly, on Sept. 4, Richardson was set free in Bloomington. “He was smiling and happy and said that he was going to live pretty straight in the future,” remarked The Pantagraph. For his part, Richardson returned to Springfield, and passed away there in 1948 at the age of 76.
Back in 1908, a few days after Richardson’s release, Sangamon County deputy sheriffs conducted Joe James back to Springfield. He was speedily convicted of murder, and on Oct. 23, hanged in the Sangamon County Jail — despite the fact James was 18 years old and as a minor not subject to the death penalty.
In contrast, of the hundreds of lynch mob participants and arsonists, and the thousands of vandals, looters and co-conspirators, there was but one conviction, and that was for petty larceny.