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Comment: Tom Emery – Lincoln’s country is not immune to racial tensions



Although life was slowly improving for millions of people in Illinois at the start of the 20th century, many still struggled for equity – including women, the poor, and minorities. In several cases, racial tensions have exploded in some of the defining moments in American social history.

After the civil war, some blacks began to migrate north in search of better employment opportunities and better living conditions. But despite the gains of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, many black northerners had no money, few possessions, and limited skills and education. As a result, they competed for low-end jobs with immigrant workers and lower-to-middle class whites.

Yet blacks continued to move north. In 1900, there were only 84,000 blacks in Illinois. However, the start of the so-called “great migration” of blacks from the South at the time saw minority populations leap into industrial cities like Chicago, Peoria and Springfield. In 1919, Chicago’s black population was 100,000, double the previous decade.



Racial and economic fears prevailed and often resulted in violence. Macabre lynchings of blacks were reported statewide in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including notable incidents in Decatur, Belleville, Danville and Cairo.


Few, however, had the impact of the 1908 race riot in the capital of Springfield. On August 13 of the same year, Mabel Hallam, a young married white woman, claimed that she had been raped by a black intruder.

An outbreak of fire ensued throughout the night of August 14 and much of the following day, as large crowds burned and looted businesses and black houses. Two black men, including an 80-year-old man married to a white woman, were murdered horribly and over a hundred people were injured. Some 107 indictments were returned, with just one conviction.


On September 1, Hallam admitted that she had lied.

Journalist William English Walling has written a scathing account of the Springfield riot that stirred the passions of activists in New York City, who gathered to discuss American race relations. The discussion culminated in the founding of the NAACP on February 12, 1909 – the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

Other riots were even more deadly. In East St. Louis in 1916 and 1917, labor shortages prompted business owners to hire blacks from the south, resulting in an influx of 10,000 to 12,000 black workers, creating unrest and periodic violence.


The National Guard spent several weeks in the city before withdrawing in mid-June. On July 1, a rumor circulated that a white man had been killed by a black man.

Large armed clashes over the next two days claimed the lives of nine whites. Estimates of black deaths run into the hundreds. Some 250 buildings and 40 railroad cars were set on fire in what one source calls “the worst of many incidents of racial antagonism in the United States during World War I.”

On July 27, 1919, in Chicago, a 17-year-old black boy was swimming in Lake Michigan when he drifted across an unofficial line between the city’s black and white beaches. Whites on earth threw stones at the boy, who was hit in the head and drowned.

This sparked a week of violence that left 38 dead and at least 537 injured. Some 1,000 black families were burned outside their homes. The summer of 1919 has been nicknamed “the red summer” because of the number of race riots across the country.

Some progress was made at the time, including the formation of a race relations commission in Chicago after the 1919 riot which identified 59 needs for improvement.

Ida B. Wells founded the first African American Women’s Club in Chicago, which became the headquarters of the Illinois Federation of Black Women’s Clubs.

Tom Emery is a writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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