Lincoln's Hometown Marks 100th Anniversary of Riot

Two days of terror. Black men tortured and hanged. A baby dead of exposure. Four white rioters shot by black defenders.

It wasn't America's first riot, and certainly not the last.

But this one was in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, the president who helped end slavery.

Today, Lincoln's city — where Barack Obama launched his campaign to become the first black president — is finally commemorating the events that erupted 100 years ago this month.

At the time, even respectable citizens came out to gawk at the smoldering rubble and a body hanging from a tree.

"His feet dangling and within reach ... the men and boys played with the corpse by swinging it back and forth against the building to hear the dull thud," a local newspaper reported.

Outraged activists helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in response to this "race war in the north."

"It wasn't in Mississippi, it was in Illinois. That jarred people," said Roger Wilkins, publisher of the NAACP's The Crisis magazine. "Add the fact that it's where Lincoln is buried. You have a lot of symbolism. Lincoln was a live memory to a lot of people."

Then the riot simply faded into history.

Nationally, it was overshadowed by larger riots in East St. Louis, and in Tulsa, Okla.

And for generations, it was studiously ignored in Springfield.

Tamara Douglass, an African-American high school teacher, grew up in Springfield but didn't hear a word about the riot until a professor mentioned it in college.

"I was angry," she said. "I found it hypocritical that in this town it's all about Lincoln, we want to embrace him. Then you find out — whoah! — this is who we are. THIS is Springfield."

The violence began on Aug. 14, 1908, after a bit of trickery that saved two lives.

An angry crowd gathered outside the Sangamon County jail demanding that two black prisoners — one held on murder charges and the other accused (but later cleared) of rape — be turned over to them.

Instead, the sheriff had the nearby fire station ring its alarm to distract the crowd and then hustled the prisoners out the back door and into a waiting car, which took them to safety.

Furious at being tricked, the crowd took vengeance on the man who had driven the prisoners to safety, Harry Loper. They burned his car, then looted and demolished his restaurant.

In the frenzy, one man was killed, apparently shot to death.

Then the crowd, several thousand strong, turned its fury on the city's black residents, tearing through the red-light district known as the Levee and burning black-owned businesses.

Next, they attacked a largely residential neighborhood known as the Badlands. They bypassed homes with sheets hanging outside, signaling that whites lived there, but torched black homes and beat their owners.

Scott Burton, a 56-year-old barber, tried to hold the mob at bay with a shotgun, but they grabbed him after he had fired a couple of rounds. Someone got a clothesline from a nearby house, and they hanged Burton from a tree.

Then they mutilated his body and halted only when members of the state militia showed up and fired into the crowd.

Most black families fled to the militia's arsenal or hid in fields and forests, where at least one baby died in the August heat. Some sympathetic whites offered refuge.

Other black residents armed themselves and fought back. Four rioters were killed.

In an interview decades later, Edith Carpenter recalled that her father patrolled with guns visible.

"I'll let you know they never bothered him," she said. "All day and all night long, he had a gun on each shoulder and he marched from where our store was ... to our home, and that was back and forth all evening."

The next day, Aug. 15, the rioters regrouped as darkness fell, but soldiers turned them back as they headed for another black neighborhood and the arsenal where hundreds of blacks were taking shelter.

The mob then headed to the home of 84-year-old William Donnegan, a retired cobbler who had worked for Lincoln and who was married to a white woman.

Just a short block from the state Capitol, the mob hauled Donnegan from his home, slashed his throat and hanged him. He was still alive when the militia arrived and cut him down, but he died the next day.

The riots led to 107 indictments and 85 arrests. But witnesses, either sympathetic to the rioters or intimidated by them, were hard to find. One mob leader killed herself rather than stand trial. One man was sentenced to 30 days in jail for stealing a sword from a black veteran, and a teenager was sent to a reformatory for a few months.

The city power structure quickly played down the riot.

"This was not a race war at all," one newspaper claimed. In decades to come, the obituaries for key participants — including the sheriff whose protection of his prisoners helped trigger the violence — would contain no mention of the riot.

Not until the 1990s were markers erected on the sites of important locations in the violence.

"It's a history that has to be brought out into the open. It really has to be," said Garret Moffett, who leads walking tours of those locations. "The martyrs of the riot should be remembered."

This summer, black and white churches have held a series of assemblies to remember the riot. The local ministerial alliance arranged for billboards proclaiming "All races welcome here!"

The Lincoln Presidential Library is hosting an exhibit on the riot and offered a summer program for high school students to research the topic. Events marking the centennial are scheduled in coming weeks.

Mayor Timothy Davlin issued a formal apology for the riot and "the lingering consequences of the misdeeds."

"It is extremely important that we take time to recognize the significance of the race riots, that we teach our children all about them," Davlin said last year when he formed a commission to plan for the anniversary, "and that we rededicate ourselves to the notion that we must all work together to ensure that something like that never happens again."