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African American History Past and Present – Part 4

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In the last part of this road trip series, (to start at Part 1 click here) we explored Lincoln’s life and work as "The Great Emancipator." Now we’re moving on to learn more about the area’s African American history past and present.

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The issue of slavery in Lincoln’s day is only part of the history of African Americans in and around Springfield.

The Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum focuses its efforts on “documenting the community, the culture, and the triumphs/tragedies of Springfield African-American life” during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Their current cadre of exhibits encompasses Black U.S. Marshals, Black Press in Springfield & Illinois, Red Tails: An exhibit honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, and the historic 1908 Race Riot. The museum also offers programs throughout the year including oral history projects, special events and other presentations.

Moreover, efforts by the Museum’s founding body were instrumental in the historic registering of the Lincoln Colored Home, the first orphanage for African American children.

Springfield is one of several U.S. cities where tensions between African Americans and the majority of the day escalated into great turmoil and violence, experienced here as the 1908 Race Riot. Although the riot only lasted two days, the aftermath was devastating—physically, emotionally and spiritually—to the well-established and prosperous black community here which was completely destroyed by a white mob that burned black businesses and homes in protest over the secret relocation from the town jail of a black handyman named George Richardson, and another black prisoner, for their own protection.

Richardson had been falsely accused by a white woman of rape and despite his temporary safety, the after effects of eight deaths included the lynching of two black men, over 70 injuries—to both blacks and whites—and because of the widespread destruction, the fleeing of some 3,000 black residents from the city.

The incident sent shock waves across the country, as it was one more slap in the face and testament to the fact that anti-black sentiment was unfortunately still alive and well—even in the town where the national hero began his anti-slavery campaign that ultimately resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet this historic riot is credited with the founding of the NAACP.

A remembrance of the 1908 Race Riot is poignantly captured outside of the Union Station Visitors Center in Union Square Park downtown. Here a beautiful bronze sculpture depicting numerous scenes and aspects of the Riot and its people by world renowned African American artist Preston Jackson.

To bring to bear more depth about the Riot and its significance here as well as in the U.S., visitors can embark upon a self-guided, eight-marker tour that highlights its destructive path downtown, including at the State Arsenal, The Old Courthouse, the site of one of the lynchings, and other noteworthy sites.

Life Goes On

Though not as collectively widespread as it was in its heyday, the African American community here is still vibrant and thriving. We’ll look more at this in our next visit to Springfield.

Up next – A few more exciting sites and attractions and some great culinary diversions.

To start at Part 1 click here.