Most daily newspapers published at the turn of the twentieth century carried little news of the lives of African Americans, let alone their perspectives. That was indeed the case with the coverage of dailies in Springfield, Illinois, about the riot of August 1908 in which whites intentionally tracked, harmed, and killed blacks. Thanks to the foresight of oral historians working in the 1970s and the diligence of college librarians in preserving their interviews, a record exists of the varied responses of African-American residents to the violence of the roaming white mob. Some fled. Some hid. Others took up arms to defend their lives, homes, and businesses. The threat to fight back was sometimes enough to ward off attackers, though some black men did fire their guns into hostile white crowds, wounding or killing an unrecorded number of white rioters.

What follows is a compilation of five excerpts from more expansive oral histories taken from four black residents and one Jewish resident of Springfield who lived through the riot. Their accounts reflect a remarkable degree of social organization in a community but two generations out of slavery. African Americans who fled to the surrounding countryside were housed, fed, and protected by black farming families for the weekend until the National Guard arrived and restored order in the state capital. Other families who remained in the city collaborated to identify homes or, in one case, a park where they could gather and conceal themselves. One neighborhood quickly formed a self-defense committee, with women serving as lookouts and men as armed guards.


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