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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003 02:20 pm

Missing the mark

The starting point of the 1908 race riots stands squarely in front of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. What happened to the memorial marker?

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Eight markers in central Springfield were set out to tell the story of the 1908 race riots. The markers were put in place in 1994 by the Historical Events Memorial Committee under then-mayor Ossie Langfelder.

On August 14 and 15, 1908, two blacks, Scott Burton and William Donnegan, were killed by a white mob. Governor Charles Deheen sent 4,000 troops into Springfield to keep the peace. Some blacks fled to the state arsenal. Even so, by the end of the second day, 12 black businesses and 40 black homes had been burned to the ground by rioters.

A few weeks later, a grand jury handed down 107 indictments against 75 white rioters. But in the trials that followed, only one person was convicted of a minor offense.

The shame of the brutal race riots occurring in Abraham Lincoln's hometown was not lost on outsiders. In the spring of 1908, Gutzon Borglum's marble bust of Lincoln was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. The nation was gearing up for the centennial observance of Lincoln's birth, and once again the eyes of the world would be focused on Springfield. When 1909 rolled around, then-president Theodore Roosevelt unveiled his brainchild: the Lincoln penny.

The markers that were erected in 1994 invite reflection on many topics--violence, hate crimes, race relations, and Springfield's unique role in American history.

In the spring of 2002 members of the predominantly black Abundant Faith church got together with folks from the predominantly white Hope Evangelical church to talk about race relations in the context of their Christian faith.

"Our goal was to increase racial harmony in Springfield," says Sandy Robinson, who helped to facilitate the meetings. Robinson is the city's director of community relations. "We decided to walk the eight sites. We felt the need to connect with what took place in Springfield in 1908. At each site, our group stopped, read the marker, prayed together, and talked about what had happened at that location."

To begin the walking tour, you should go to the first marker on the southwest corner of Seventh and Jefferson. On August 14, 1908, at 6 p.m., 2,000 whites gathered at that corner to confront two black inmates in the Sangamon County Jail.

But anyone undertaking the walking tour today will quickly encounter a problem--the first marker isn't there. The "starting point" of the tour--the marker showing the location of the county jail--was removed last year.

Why is that marker missing? All eight plaques begin with the same three words: "City of Springfield." So I first checked in with the public works office at City Hall, and I was directed to Mike Pfeiffer, assistant city engineer. "Tim Sheehan became the city engineer this past May," Pfeiffer told me. "He and I have not discussed the race riot markers."

So I went to David Blanchette, spokesperson for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. He said the marker probably needed to be kept safe during construction of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Would it then be put back after the project was completed? "The marker might not be put back in the same place," he said. Was I attaching too much significance to the marker?

"Very seldom do people come to Springfield to find out about the race riot or the historical markers," remarked Nicky Stratton, executive director of the Springfield Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "That practically never happens."

"The race riot--that horrific event--was not talked about in Springfield until 20 years ago," said Kathryn Harris, director of the Illinois State Historical Library. "Did you know that a video about the race riot is entitled Springfield Had no Shame? I think it is an apt title."

How do we mark progress in race relations? How far have we come? Springfield is already gearing up for the year 2009, when it will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Will we ironically skip over the 100th anniversary of the 1908 race riots?

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