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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 01:57 am

“Such a horrible thing”

Exhibit commemorates one of Springfield’s most painful moments

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Many of the visitors attending last week’s preview of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s exhibit on the 1908 Springfield race riot were silent as they inspected the artifacts and informational panels chronicling the events of 100 years ago. “This is not only black history, this is American history,” says guest curator Carole Merritt. “This is where two races came together, albeit in conflict, so it’s a story that everybody needs to know.”
Even many residents of Springfield are unfamiliar with the details of the riot, which was spawned by the false allegation of Mabel Hallam, the young wife of a prominent white Springfield resident, who claimed that a black man had dragged her from her bed and raped her.
The town was already a powder keg. Weeks before the Hallam episode, another well-known local citizen, Clergy Ballard, was murdered. Shortly before Ballard died, he said that he had awakened to a male intruder, whom he identified as an African-American, at his daughter’s bedside.
Between Aug. 14 and Aug. 16, approximately 40 residences and 24 businesses were destroyed, resulting in $200,000 in damage. At least seven Springfieldians, according to official reports, were killed during the melee. Handcuffs, a souvenir booklet, the badge of Sheriff Charles Werner, portions of trees used in lynchings kept as souvenirs by white residents, and a Ku Klux Klan robe are among the items on display. The exhibit, which is open through Oct. 17, took a year to complete. Museum officials initially wanted to place the display in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Merritt says, but moved it to the library so the public could see it free of charge. Merritt, former director of Atlanta’s Alonzo Herndon Home (the former residence of that city’s first black millionaire), says few are familiar with the race riots that took place in America. Nine years after the unrest in Springfield, 150 African-Americans lost their lives in nearby East St. Louis in one of the bloodiest racially motivated massacres in U.S. history.
“Most people — black and white — don’t know anything about the riots that occurred in our country, partly because it’s such a horrible thing that people want to forget,” Merritt says. “Whites may want to deny it, blacks may not want to face the pain of it, so there’s not much impetus for telling the story. That’s why this centennial is a great opportunity to make people do something that they really don’t want to do.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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