October 29, 2008
By Michael Omenazu
A dinner reception held in
the Public Affairs Center seated
both men and women of various
ethnicities. Blacks and whites
congregated together to listen to
Roberta Senechal’s lecture rregarding
the Springfield race riots
The audience illustrated diversity
in various aspects, as it
featured not only students, faculty,
and community members but
also members of the Association
for Integrated Studies from 26
states, the District of Colombia,
and foreign countries.
The theme of integration was emphasized not only by the attendees, but in the program’s intent. The event was one of many of the Engaged Citizenship Common Experience (ECCE) Speaker Series discussing Springfield’s centennial race riots.
Roberta Senechal, Associate Professor of History at Washington and Lee University, began her lecture by providing a brief history of the tragic events that forever changed racial relations locally and nationally.
The black business district in
the city, made up of 20 shops,
was destroyed along with the
deaths of two black males, four
whites, and 50 hospitalizations.
Entire neighborhoods suffered
as 40 homes were burned. This is
particularly true of the Badlands,
northeast of downtown, which
created a population of refugees.
Author of In Lincoln’s Shadow:
The 1908 Race Riot In
Springfield Illinois, Senechal
highlighted the irony of racially
motivated violence in Springfield
by pointing out these acts happened in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, the president who emancipated slaves.
Media response to the aggression
was subjected to ignorant
thinking, refusing to admit the
conflict was the consequence of
racial tensions. Southerners commented
on the transgressions by
stating that interracial problems
and anti-black sentiment was a
Senechal’s research included an attempt to learn more about rioters and victims. Her efforts resulted in finding around 200 names of people involved and, accordingly, she was able to create a profile of those involved on both sides. She concluded that average rioter was a single white male in his mid 20’s.
Most were native born Americans,
specifically from central Illinois,
contrary to popular belief
which held the notion those perpetrating
the violence were immigrants.
Riot membership was
selective as most had ties to alleged
victims of the actions that
precipitated the riot. Most were
either friends, friends of friends,
neighbors or relatives.
Those who endured the attack were African-Americans who enjoyed visible success, thus considered by some to be socially dangerous. This was illustrated in the assaults being held in the black business districts.
At the time many blacks were
experiencing upward social mobility,
holding specific jobs and
having political representation.
Ironically, the riots attempt to
eliminate these benefits actually
resulted in progress in these areas
as the 1908 Race Riot led to
the creation of the National Association
for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP), an organization
created to ensure and
protect the rights and advantages
Roberta Senechal’s informative
lecture brought light to an
event that is considered to be one
of the darkest in Springfield’s history
and also rarely remembered.
Dr. Karen Moranski, commented
on the speech by stating it was as
“a practice of awareness and diversity
and Senechal’s work fits
into that theme.”
According to Moranski, “students are able to take away a greater understanding of history as they learn more about where they are.” She viewed the address as “an answer to alienation and racial aggression because not only does it educate those in attendance, but it brings together people of all types and backgrounds.”