The Springfield Race Riot of 1908, the NAACP, and the Illinois State Museum

postcard riot

By law, artifacts excavated at the 1908 Springfield Race Riot site were to be curated at the ISM. Over the years, ISM has developed a close relationship with the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum, working collaboratively to preserve the rich historical record of African-American life.

In preparing for rail consolidation for Springfield’s high-speed rail, an archaeological survey was conducted in accordance with federal law.  As it happens, the rail line goes right through the area in which victims of the riot lived, and archaeologists discovered remains from the houses.

The riot was a brutal two-day assault by several thousand white citizens on the black community, sparked by the arrest of two African America suspects in violent crimes against whites. When the mob that had gathered to lynch the men discovered the sheriff had transferred them out of the city, it rioted in black neighborhoods, killing black citizens on the street and destroyed businesses and homes. The next day the governor sent in thousands of militia to restore order.

The riot in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown demonstrated the need for an effective national civil rights organization. The riot is considered an important precipitating event in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1909, a biracial group of activists, including W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Archibald Grimke, Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villard, Florence Kelley, and William English Walling–the last son of a former slave-holding family–met to form the organization.

The ISM is the legally designated repository for the race riot site’s artifacts, field notes, maps and reports. Where will all the artifacts and records from the survey and excavations go—not to mention all the other  surveys and excavations in the ISM collections?  Who is going to keep the site files for the entire state?  What will happen to the millions of artifacts the ISM has under these laws?  Neither the Governor nor DNR is providing any answers to these important questions.

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