Pardon sought for Black Illinois man executed in 1908

The arrest of Joe James, who was sleeping under a tree before he was grabbed, beaten and arrested, led to a race riot in Springfield.

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Sculptures representing charred chimneys rising from the smoldering rubble of burned-out buildings make up the Centennial memorial of the 1908 Race Riot entitled, “Acts of Intolerance” by Preston Jackson, Wednesday March 22, 2023, in Springfield, Ill.

John O’Connor/AP

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Joe James, a Black man, was asleep under a tree when he was grabbed, beaten and then arrested for the murder of a white man in Springfield, Illinois.

Before he was put on trial and later executed, a white mob seeking vengeance for the crime James was accused of committing took out its hate and anger on other Black people in the state capital.

The 1908 race riot left Black-owned businesses and homes looted and burned. At least two other Black men were lynched weeks before an all-white jury convened in the aftermath of the violence found James guilty, according to legal teams petitioning for a pardon 114 years after the fact. Their argument: The jury was racially prejudiced and James did not receive a fair trial.

The riot and its aftermath fueled the formation a year later of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“James’ factual innocence is not the focus of this petition, because the passage of time and the destruction of evidence have made it impossible to prove conclusively that James was innocent,” said Steve Drizin, co-director of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions and Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project in Boston filed a petition for executive clemency this month. They are to go before the review board from next month.

The review board then could make a recommendation for pardon to Gov. J.B. Pritzker. If successful, the posthumous action would be the third such pardon in Illinois over the past decade and follow recent ones elsewhere in the U.S.

James was accused of entering Clergy Ballard’s home in July 1908 when Ballard’s 16-year-old daughter woke to find a man sitting on her bed. Reports from that time state that Ballard caught the man outside the house and was stabbed or cut to death during a struggle.

James was arrested hours later and locked in the county jail where the following month he was joined by another Black man, George Richardson, who was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.

Threats from white residents to both men prompted authorities to move them to a jail outside Sangamon County. Incensed, the white mob took out its judgment on the town’s Black residents.

At least eight white people were killed in the violence and more than 100 were injured, mostly by members of the state militia or each other, according to the petition, which cited news articles from that period. It’s not known how many Black people were injured and killed.

The first business burned by the white mob was a restaurant whose white owner used his car to help move James and Richardson from the Sangamon County Jail. An eatery owned by a Black woman, Kadejia Berkley, now stands at the site of that restaurant.

James appeared before a Sangamon County jury after a judge refused to move the trial to another county. He “was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence,” attorneys seeking the pardon said in a release.

On Oct. 23, 1908, just over two months after the riot, James was hanged at the Sangamon County jail. White rioters were acquitted for their roles in the lynching and destruction.

“Throughout history, we have seen white juries not only convict and execute Black men and women on scant evidence, but acquit whites who murder Black people in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt,” said Margaret Burnham, founding director of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. “This double standard operated in Springfield in 1908, infecting Springfield’s criminal justice system and depriving James of a fair trial.”

In 2020, the site of the riot near downtown Springfield was added to the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Network.

Granting the posthumous pardon will not break new ground, the petition said.

In 2014, then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned three white abolitionists convicted of helping runaway slaves in the 1840s. Five years later, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner pardoned Grover Thompson, a Black man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a white woman in 1981.

One of the more prominent exoneration cases involves nine Black men wrongly accused of raping two white women in 1931 in Alabama. The “Scottsboro Boys” were convicted by all-white juries. All but the youngest defendant was sentenced to death. Five of the convictions were overturned in 1937 after one of the alleged victims recanted her story. Each man was ultimately freed. Clarence Norris, the last known surviving defendant, was pardoned in 1976 by Alabama’s governor. The rest received posthumous pardons in 2013.

Such pardons mean the world to relatives of those wrongly accused and convicted, said Osceola Perdue, niece of Alexander McClay Williams, a Black 16-year-old who was convicted in 1931 by an all-white jury and executed in the slaying of a white matron of a boys school in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

Williams signed murder confessions but later recanted. Charges against him were dismissed last June after the Delaware County district attorney’s office said there was no direct evidence implicating Williams to the slaying and no eyewitnesses.

“It was so sad to know he was only 16 and they didn’t care as long as they convicted someone,” Perdue told The Associated Press. “He was a Black kid. They convicted a kid they knew did not do this.”

Perdue, 56, said her father first told her about his brother’s tragic story when she was 8 years old.

“My grandmother, as I found out later, never thought he did it,” Perdue said. “My grandmother went to her deathbed knowing that her child went to the electric chair.”

Williams’ sister, Susie Carter, described his pardon as “uplifting.”

“It really meant a lot to me,” Carter, 93, of Chester, Pennsylvania, said Wednesday. “All these years, you think maybe he did do it because he confessed. It wasn’t something you were proud of. My mother would say my brother didn’t kill that woman.”

“My brother’s blood must have cried out from the ground,” she said. “That state murdered my brother.”

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