'Our history.' Supporters of Springfield Race Riot memorial pack park service forum

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The newest addition to the Downtown Memphis landscape, a statue at the corner of Beale and Fourth Street of Ida B. Wells, the pioneering journalist, educator and civil rights advocate.

T. David Parker said he was taken aback when he first learned the details of the 1908 Springfield Race Riot.

Parker, an architect with Melotte Morse Leonatti Parker, Ltd., said he remembered reading about it on signs posted at the Old State Capitol Plaza.

At a public listening and question-and-answer session hosted by the National Park Service about a proposed monument commemorating the riot in which two prominent Black Springfield business owners were lynched, Parker gave his full-throated endorsement.

"This monument is a way to help tell the rest of that story," said Parker, who didn't grow up in Springfield. "It's important, especially for our kids. I think this monument is important not only for the city, but for the nation and for the world. We get visitors from all over the world. They need to see this."

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Officials have been performing a special resource study on the viability of making the memorial a unit of the park service since March.

Wednesday's public session drew about 100 people to the Springfield NAACP building on 11th Street. It gave residents a chance to get caught up park service's plans and what goes into an official designation of a monument.

Representatives from both Illinois senators, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, and Tammy Duckworth, D-Chicago, were in attendance. Mayor Jim Langfelder and Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory and Ward 3 Ald. Roy Williams Jr. were among the speakers.

Tokey Boswell, an associate regional director for facilities, planning and infrastructure for the park service, said Congress ordered NPS to do a more complete study after doing a preliminary study on the site in 2018.

The park service is at the public outreach stage right now and will continue to gather information before drafting a report which will be presented to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland next spring, said Julie Bell, cultural resource project manager for the NPS. Haaland will eventually present it to the Congress, she added.

Teresa Haley, president of both the NAACP Illinois State Conference and the Springfield Branch, said it is "long past due that something happened in terms of a national monument.

"The 1908 race riots are our history," Haley added.

The NAACP grew out of the race riot, which also included five other deaths, dozens of injuries, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property destroyed and more than 40 Black families displaced when their homes were burned.

The victims included Burton, a Black barber who attempted to defend his home, and Donnegan, an 80-year-old cobbler.

One of the NAACP's original founders was Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a journalist and civil rights and women's rights pioneer and a crusader for antilynching legislation.

Wells' great-grandson, Dan Duster of Chicago attended Wednesday's meeting and said Springfield deserves the monument.

Duster said it could start healthy discussions about race relations.

"When you have dialogue, you have healthy discussions," Duster said. "When you have healthy discussions, you can have healing. When you have healing, you can move forward in a positive and wonderful way.

"It's crucial that it happen (in Springfield)."

Marcus Johnson, president and CEO of the Springfield Urban League, agreed that "tough, uncomfortable but necessary conversations of race relations are not (things) to run away from but (things to) run towards in the fight for racial and ethnic equality."

A monument in the community would instill, Johnson added, "a greater sense of pride (and) serve as a point of reference to the progress made."

A proposed memorial would include a remembrance garden boardwalk that would introduce visitors to the site and a contemplation space at the end.

Damond Boatwright, the president and CEO of Hospital Sisters Health System, said HSHS St. John's Hospital has deep ties to the aftermath of the race riot. Some of the religious sisters cared for people injured nearby, Boatwright said, and the hospital donated part of the land where the monument is proposed.

Boatwright, speaking at the meeting, said the hospital is "willing to donate more land to help this site be as impactful as possible."

In 2018, HSHS St. John's unveiled a permanent educational wall exhibit on the race riot inside the Women's & Children's Clinic on Ninth Street. There is also a healing garden outside of the building, adjacent to the proposed site.

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The race riot site, long buried near the 10th Street railroad tracks and Madison Street, was unearthed in 2014 during construction of the Springfield Rail Improvements Project.

An archaeological team from Fever River Research found seven homes, five of which were burned during the riot, as well as artifacts from a mid-1800s immigrant neighborhood. Teams from Fever River Research, said archaeologist Floyd Mansberger, are working around 10th and Madison streets for the next couple of weeks.

The Illinois State Museum has become a repository for those artifacts, Boswell said.

Park service personnel cautioned that the special resources study does not automatically mean the site will become a monument. Another path forward is for President Joe Biden to sign the Antiquities Act, a move Haley has endorsed.

Bell said NPS looks at several factors, including whether the site is "nationally significant." It has to be suitable to be an NPS unit, meaning it has to have the right configuration and accessibility.

NPS, Bell added, also looks at feasibility, such as the costs of acquiring the site and staffing it.

The Lincoln Home area is part of the NPS, so there is already a presence in Springfield.

Boswell said "60 to 75 percent of special resource studies had positive findings. Of those which had a positive finding, about 75% become a unit of the National Park Service in one way or another, so the odds have been historically good."

There is more information about the special resource study at the park service's website, where comments about the race riot site can be made.

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.

This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Supporters of Springfield's 1908 Race Riot memorial pack forum