Abraham Lincoln’s hometown looked back Thursday at a long-ignored horror story, as officials dedicated a sculpture commemorating the 1908 riot in which white mobs lynched and terrorized black residents.
The dedication came as Springfield faces a new furor over a noose left at the work station of a black city employee, an incident that added an edge of anger to remarks at the ceremony. A second noose was found later Thursday.
“We will not go back,” said R. Beverly Peters, chairwoman of the commission that organized the commemoration. “Let the word go out that we will not be deterred by one or two or even a few Neanderthal thinkers who would resurrect a hangman’s noose or any other relic of the dark and racist past.”
The untitled bronze sculpture stands across the street from the Lincoln Presidential Museum. Its two parts resemble the chimneys left standing after black-owned homes were burned. It includes scenes from the riot and its aftermath: smoldering rubble, families rebuilding, National Guard troops offering protection.
The artist, Preston Jackson, said he added the likenesses of friends who have made a difference in the community. He even carved one drummer to look like President Barack Obama.
But he intentionally left out any depictions of the lynchings that occurred.
“This is a time to build,” he said, “and sometimes images can stir emotions.”
The violence began on Aug. 14, 1908, when a mob gathered outside the jail and demanded that two black prisoners be turned over for vigilante justice. The mob exploded in anger after learning that the prisoners had been secretly taken to safety.
Thousands of people rampaged through the city’s black business area and residential neighborhoods, burning and looting as they went. They hanged one man and mutilated his body. The next day, a mob formed again and killed another black man.
Some black residents armed themselves and fought back. Men took to the rooftops, firing at the screaming mobs below. Four rioters were killed.
The riots led to 107 indictments and 85 arrests. But witnesses, either sympathetic to the rioters or intimidated by them, were hard to find. In the end, one man was sentenced to 30 days in jail for stealing a sword, and a teenager was sent to a reformatory for a few months.
Outrage over the incident helped lead to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But memories of the riots faded, especially in Springfield.
In recent years, however, city residents have been calling attention to the riots, with plaques marking key locations and a series of events on the 100th anniversary.
Betty Waters, 63, brought her 4-month-old granddaughter, JaCayla Waters, to see the sculpture. She said her three other grandchildren would see it by Friday because they should know the story.
“The more we know about history, the better we are to cope with what our future is going to be,” Waters said, kissing JaCayla’s hand.
Springfield officials are investigating a noose that was found July 26 at the work station of a black employee at the city’s water and electricity department. The state’s attorney is considering criminal charges against the two employees accused of making the noose, and city officials are looking into disciplinary action.
A second noose was found Thursday at one of the department’s buildings. An employee was arrested and immediately place on unpaid leave.
Mayor Timothy Davlin said the city must remember what can happen when bigotry is allowed to fester and transform into violence.
“We’ve got to promise ourselves that the hatred in this community is going to stop,” Davlin said. “There’s no better time than right now to put up this monument. No better time.”