In August 1908, a two-day race riot erupted in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln’s hometown and the launching site for Barack Obama’s 2008 run for the White House.
After allegations that a black man had murdered a white man and that another black man had raped a white woman, whites sought revenge. When the sheriff slipped the two black prisoners out of town, the frustrated mob of ~1,000 turned its fury on the black community, torching homes and businesses. Springfield had been a safe place for blacks. Caught off guard, many fled. Others fought back.
At least seven people died, including a black barber, who was lynched and mutilated. Hundreds were injured, and damage to the city totaled, by today’s standards, nearly $3 million.
Later, the prisoner accused of murder was executed. The man charged with rape went free after his accuser admitted she had lied.
Courts issued more than 100 indictments for rioting, larceny, arson, and murder but convicted only two people: One paid a $5 fine and spent 30 days in jail. The other, a teenager, spent six months in a reformatory.
The riot revealed that the North, too, had a race problem. On Lincoln’s birthday in 1909, social activists introduced a new organization, the NAACP, whose initial goal would be to fight violence against black citizens.
Springfield has issued an apology and a statue depicting the riot will stand across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. But racial tensions persist. In April 2015, more than 100 people marched on the Old State Capitol, where they rang bells to signify that work still needs to be done in this country on the issue of race.