The Lincoln Museum and Springfield’s Shame

The Lincoln Museum and Springfield’s Shame

The Lincoln Museum and Springfield’s Shame

Visiting the Lincoln Museum and exposing a dark chapter in the town’s history.


In Springfield, Illinois, about 15,000 Americans–dozens of them dressed in stovepipe hats and fake beards–gathered on April 19 for the opening of the long-awaited Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. At a cost of $145 million and intended to provide an interactive Lincoln experience (complete with re-creations of Lincoln’s log cabin and life-size Madame Tussaud-esque Lincoln figures), the museum is sure to instill increased wartime patriotism in American visitors. President George W. Bush further encouraged such patriotism when, in his dedication speech, he compared his own efforts to spread liberty around the globe to the Great Emancipator’s nineteenth-century struggle to free the slaves.

“Our deepest values are also served when we take our part in freedom’s advance–when the chains of millions are broken and the captives are set free, because we are honored to serve the cause that gave us birth,” said Bush, who considers Lincoln his favorite President and keeps a bust of him in the Oval Office.

But what Bush almost certainly didn’t know was that almost 100 years ago, in the exact place where the museum stands, a white mob committed gross atrocities against former slaves in the Springfield race riot of August 15-17, 1908–a riot so heinous it inspired the foundation of the NAACP.

The riot might have passed into history unnoticed save for the efforts of William English Walling, a wealthy self-styled journalist and activist from Kentucky, and his wife, Anna Strunsky Walling, who arrived a few weeks later and began looking into what had happened. What they found, according to several history books, is that a white lynch mob–angered over the police protection given to two innocent black men falsely accused of rape and murder–destroyed the entire black neighborhood that had grown up around the Springfield factories where former slaves worked for scab wages. The Wallings tallied more than $200,000 in damage, more than fifty businesses leveled to the ground, seventy people injured, six fatally shot and two black men lynched without justification. They also recorded the flight of more than 2,000 blacks from their homes.

By the time the couple returned to New York, Walling had already contacted friends and colleagues about creating an organization of “fair-minded whites and intelligent blacks.” It took several secret meetings and some racial reconciliation, but on February 12, 1909, the National Negro Conference–whose early members included W.E.B. Du Bois–launched its first official symposium. A year later, the conference changed its name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and began its ongoing quest for civil rights.

For decades, the citizens of Springfield knew little, if anything, about the riot or its connection to the NAACP. Then in 1993 two sixth graders at a Springfield middle school, Amanda Staab and Lindsay Harney, were assigned to do a project for a history fair. They had heard rumors of the riot circulating through the local black community, and, armed with a mission, they started asking questions. Their final report on the riot–which was brought to the attention of local politicians by their teachers–stunned the white community and launched a campaign to place markers on the various sites where significant riot events had taken place. “Most people I talked to said they lived here all their life and had no idea the riot happened,” Harney told the Chicago Sun-Times on the day of the markers’ dedication. “It’s shocking they don’t know. There are so many other historical markers in Springfield; the riot should be included.”

Three years ago, however, shortly after ground was broken for the museum, construction workers removed those markers to make way for the new buildings. A couple of those markers went back up recently, but not the one that once stood where the back corner of the library is today. The city plans to re-install the monument but still hasn’t figured out where to put it. “It wouldn’t be installed on an outside wall of the museum, of course,” says Sharon Johnson, a spokesperson for the Springfield Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “The museum does not have a direct connection to the riot, only to Lincoln.” Johnson adds that the bureau does keep a walking tour guidebook for the riot sites, but that significantly more people ask for the one pointing the way to Lincoln’s home, his office, his grave, his statue in front of the Illinois State Capitol and now his museum.

Many have lauded historian Richard Norton Smith for designing the museum in a way that reveals the truth of the period and the complicated life of the man whose name is synonymous with the liberation of black Americans. And for his part, Smith, a former adviser to several presidential libraries, has proposed a temporary exhibit two years from now to commemorate the race riot.

But Amanda Staab, one of the industrious sixth graders, who is now a first-grade teacher in Springfield, says that neither the markers nor the temporary exhibit are enough. “I still believe we should have all of that stuff for Lincoln,” she says. “But I’m a teacher, and as a teacher I believe that children and adults should know about all the different types of history, not just the type that builds up a town.”

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