A race riot broke out in Springfield in 1908. It should be recognized with a national monument.

The designation of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument is a healing step in honoring Black history, but much more must be done.

SHARE A race riot broke out in Springfield in 1908. It should be recognized with a national monument.
1908 Springfield race riot bronze sculpture.

In 2009, the Illinois NAACP, the City of Springfield and the State of Illinois unveiled a large bronze sculpture commemorating the 1908 Springfield race riot. The sculpture is covered with scenes taken from vintage photographs of the event.

AP file

President Joe Biden’s designation of a national monument to honor Emmett Till, the Black teen who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, is a stark reminder of the dehumanization that can occur in America. For the well-being of our nation, such actions must be recognized.

The reality of living in a divided America — torn by racial, economic, and political divides — persists, erasing parts of our history that are uncomfortable or untenable. We forget that we share one history and are “one nation under God.”

The designation of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley National Monument is a healing step in honoring Black history, but much more must be done. Preserving historic sites and public lands will reveal previously obscured Black stories, keep us aware of our nation’s full story, and allow us to receive the grace to weep together over the incomprehensible events that have occurred.

Commemorating the site of the 1908 race riot of Springfield, a massacre that became a catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with a national monument would also be a powerful step toward a long overdue place of healing.

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The horrific series of events that happened in Springfield between Aug. 14–16 are among the most significant acts of mass racial violence committed against African Americans in U.S. history. The events demonstrated that racism and violence were pervasive not just in the South, but throughout the country.

Throughout our nation’s history, such attacks of hatred inflicted on Blacks have not been uncommon. To this day, existing as a Black person in America is a risk factor all on its own. This hatred that has divided us is as unacceptable now as it was then, especially in a country that prides itself on the ideals of equity, equality and freedom.

Until we cease to bury the past, acknowledge the trauma at depth and fully grieve together, we will continue to live in two worlds.

Many untold stories of the experience of Black Americans can be told through public lands, as illustrated in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment report from 2022, Stories on the Land. Yet the unvarnished stories of Black Americans are noticeably scant among the nation’s national park sites.

Untold stories include those of heroes and pathfinders such as Zora Neale Hurston and Frederick Douglass; Black schools and colleges such as the Rosenwald Schools, which served 700,000 Black children over four decades; Black cemeteries such as Pierce Chapel African Burial Ground; and the slave trade as documented in the wreckage of the Clotilda and the settlement of Africatown.

Of the 129 national monuments dating back to 1906 and designated by U.S. presidents, only 13 honor Black history and stories, and nine were designated in the last 12 years.

The endurance of institutions and structures such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), historically Black towns and cities, Black churches and Black cemeteries are a testament to African American resilience, despite intentional efforts to erase Black history. This resiliency against intense, unimaginable and horrific trauma is a lesson for the whole country.

But official remembrance that preserves Black history is much more than apologizing to Blacks for past wrongs. The lessons will not be learned, healing cannot and will not occur without proper acknowledgment of the past first — its pain, the trauma it has caused, and its reverberations.

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This is why the Springfield Race Riot national monument, and many other official reminders of Black history such as the appalling tragedy of Emmett Till, must be established: to tell the true, nuanced, troubled yet beautiful history of America. We preserve these lands and the stories they hold so that all of us may remember deeply, and our dual existence may end.

If we are to be one nation under God, we must exemplify a true coming together, a recognition of our bond and common connection, knowing that a shared and compassionate humanity depends on it.

Black history is American history and only in the full telling of our stories can we truly be free.

Rev. T. Ray “Mac” McJunkins is the lead pastor of Union Baptist Church, the second-oldest African American church in Springfield. Union Baptist Church was one of the buildings that was burned to the ground during the 1908 race riots.

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