SPRINGFIELD – Governor Rod R. Blagojevich today announced that “Something so Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908,” an exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of an important chapter in Illinois history, opens Saturday, June 14 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in downtown Springfield, preceded by a June 13 evening concert at the Presidential Museum.
“The Springfield race riot inspired the creation of the NAACP and with it an era of activism on behalf of improved race relations in the United States. This exhibit will remind us that we are capable of learning from unpleasant parts of our history,” said Gov. Blagojevich.
The exhibit may be viewed daily free of charge in the Presidential Library through October 2008, and includes original items from the Library’s collections as well as materials loaned by institutions and private citizens. Many of the items will be on public display for the first time. The Presidential Library and Museum is developing a series of public and educational programs that will accompany the exhibition.
A performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American choral group, at 7 p.m. Friday, June 13 in the Presidential Museum’s Union Theater will serve as a prelude to the exhibit opening. Admission is free, but those attending should call (217) 558-8934 to make reservations.
“Springfield’s riot was one of the worst in American history,” said Carole Merritt, guest curator. “This exhibit tells the story of that horrible event so that we can begin to understand the racial problems of one hundred years ago that continue to divide us, not only in Springfield, but elsewhere in America.”
The exhibit strives to present the facts of the riot and its results through the individual stories, newspaper reports, oral histories, quotes and testimony of witnesses. Original items loaned for the exhibit include letters written by eyewitnesses; a souvenir pamphlet of photos from the riot; handcuffs and a billy club; photographs of Sheriff Charles Werner and deputies; the Sheriff’s badge; and a funeral ledger and Oak Ridge Cemetery burial record. Also included are period items from the state militia, whose members were called out to quell the disturbance. These include a rifle with bayonet and scabbard; inert cartridges; a mess kit, canteen and utensils; 1901 infantry drill regulations manual; and soldiers’ uniform items.
Carole Merritt, guest curator of the exhibition, is a historian and museum consultant from Atlanta. She has been in the museum profession for 25 years, having administered various research, exhibit, and archival projects and having directed The Herndon Home, a house museum in Atlanta.
The Springfield Race Riot began August 14, 1908 when a crowd formed outside the Sangamon County Jail in Springfield where two African American men were held for alleged crimes against whites. News that the prisoners had been moved led to rioting. Black-owned businesses and homes were destroyed, at least seven people were killed with many more injured, and despite the arrival of the state militia rioting continued until August 16. A total of 117 people were indicted for riot, arson, larceny and murder. However, only two people were punished for the riot: One person pled guilty to burglary, larceny, riot and arson and was sent to prison; one other participant was found guilty of petty larceny. Jolted to action by the violence in Springfield, social activists, both black and white, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the oldest civil rights organization in the nation.