Aug. 14, 1908

Credit: Wikipedia

A mob of about 5,000 white men in Springfield, Illinois, wanted to lynch two Black men in jail. As they moved toward the jail, they chanted, “Curse the day that Lincoln freed the n—–s.” 

To prevent the lynching, authorities secreted the men out of the jail to safety. When the lynch mob discovered this, they began to terrorize Black Americans and their supporters, destroying the restaurant of a wealthy white man who had provided the car for the sheriff to transport the two inmates. Then the mob destroyed dozens of Black businesses and finally a poor Black neighborhood known as the Badlands. 

At least 16 died as a result of the attacks, which caused more than $4 million in damages in modern dollars. Many Black citizens fled the city. 

One of the two Black men was George Richardson, whom Mabel Hallam accused of raping and beating her. Richardson, whose grandfather had been Abraham Lincoln’s barber, professed his innocence: “As God is my judge, I am innocent of the crime I am charged with at Springfield. I have tried to conduct myself so as to win the respect of my white neighbors, and believe that I have done so. I was born in Springfield, educated in the public schools there, and have always lived there. I am 36 years of age, have a wife, but no children. My wife believes in me and we are proud of our little home. I have worked for Mr. Rhinehart, contractor, for some time, and always work when I can find work to do. … I never saw Mrs. Hallam before until she identified me as the man who assaulted her. She is mistaken.” 

After authorities concluded the rapist had a sexually transmitted infection and that Richardson had no such disease, Hallam changed her identification, and Richardson was freed. Hallam later admitted she lied to cover up an affair she was having when she began having symptoms of the infection. She was never charged with perjury. 

The other suspect was Joe James, who had only recently arrived from Alabama, looking for work. He was accused of breaking into the white man’s home and killing him as the two fought. After police couldn’t find any evidence of a burglary, the local press suggested his intent to ravage the man’s daughters. He was tried and convicted by an all-white jury. Six weeks later, he was hanged in jail. 

Most of the white killers in the massacre walked free, despite eyewitness testimony. The massacre inspired the creation of the NAACP a year later.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.