A past worth remembering
Community effort to recognize 1908 race riots nationally underway
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, has put his name on a bill that would designate the area where remains of the 1908 Springfield race riots were uncovered as a national monument.
Racial tensions hit a low point in Springfield’s history in mid-August of 1908. Provoked by a claim of rape that was eventually recanted two weeks later, a mob of white men burned down black-owned homes and businesses after learning the man accused of rape had been driven out of town in a vehicle owned by a white restaurant owner.
Artifacts and the remains of five structures were unearthed in 2014 during excavation along the Carpenter Street segment as part of a project to consolidate the city’s rail lines.
Speaking at a press conference at the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum on Jan. 18, Davis said recognition of the artifacts, as well as the history of Springfield and the importance the race riots had on the formation of the NAACP, is a community effort that’s giving the “due honor that those artifacts demand we give.”
The push toward having the site recognized is bipartisan, with support from U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who plans to sponsor the bill in the Senate. Davis said the National Park Service has agreed to conduct a preliminary resource assessment, a necessary step when designating a potential site as a national monument.
Teresa Haley, NAACP Illinois chapter president, said the site serves as an important piece of local and national history, as well as the NAACP’s. “It has been a history that people in Springfield and around the country have been ashamed of,” Haley said. “They say, ‘Oh, we’re going to bury that, we’re not going to talk about that. That’s the history we want to forget.’ But if we don’t know our past, we’re bound to repeat it. Haven’t we all heard that before?”
The race riots of 1908 remain a scar on Springfield’s history, but it served as a catalyst for the formation of the NAACP after the events in Springfield made national news.
Early estimates place the cost of the commemorative site construction at $5 million, with construction to take five years to complete. Mayor Jim Langfelder said the city will be contributing to the memorial site money received from the Illinois Department of Transportation but was unsure how much will be donated.
State Rep. Tim Butler said he plans to introduce a resolution in the Illinois General Assembly to support the federal steps being taken to have the site recognized as a national monument. “With what Congressman Davis and Sen. Duckworth are doing on the Senate side as far as legislation to make this a national monument, I think it is really a huge step forward for our community,” Butler said. Davis did not mention if the partial federal government shutdown will affect the National Park Service’s assessment of the site, but he did share his thoughts on the gridlock between Democrats and President Donald Trump’s funding for a border wall.
“We know, as we move forward, we all have to govern together. We’ve got to make sure that even in the midst of a partial shutdown that we’re in, that we don’t lose sight of the long-term goals of making something like this a national monument,” Davis said. “We’re going to continue to do the work on the ground, in the House and in the Senate, regardless of what’s happening outside of our control.”
Artifacts found at the site of the 1908 race riots will be on display at the African American History Museum until the end of February.
Lindsey Salvatelli is an editorial intern with Illinois Times as part of the Public Affairs Reporting master’s degree program at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact her at email@example.com.