UIS Students Dig into Local History

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UIS Students Dig into Local History

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Students of a variety of ages mill around the ruins of homes that were destroyed in the 1908 Springfield race riots. They are enrolled in Dr. Lynn Fisher’s Introduction to Archaeology class, and though it is their first week back to school, they have already begun researching and studying the race riots in detail. Fisher’s students are using case studies to better understand how artifacts found can shed light on the everyday lives of people who have been lost in history. As the students listen to the tour guide and study the pictures of recovered artifacts, they reflect upon the lives that were drastically altered for the worst 111 years ago. 

Kat Pruitt, a junior anthropology major, attended the trip and found that seeing the site was really eye-opening. There’s so much history under our feet that we don’t even know about…We’re living with the untold stories of the people who came before us, and it’s the most enjoyable thing to get to uncover and learn about.” 

Fisher hopes that this trip could help the students delve into class and allow them to better understand its main objectives. “The course is about how and why archaeologists investigate the past, and cultural, legal, and ethical issues about how we preserve, investigate and commemorate the past.” By immersing the students in some of the real-world applications of archaeology, Fisher wants the students to get a sense of how archaeologists work in the field.  

The story behind the race riots is a tragedy that has been covered up for far too long. A white woman, Mabel Hallam, falsely accused an African American man of rape. Once it was discovered that the police had transferred the man out of town, a mob formed to take vengeance against the African American community. 44 homes were burned, two men were lynched, and several others were targeted and assaulted by the white mob. The National Guard was called in to end the Springfield riots, and the NAACP formed as a direct result of this tragedy. Time has uncovered the dark past of Springfield, and these events are finally being properly memorialized after a century. 

The race riot site sits at the back of the St. John’s Hospital parking lot, and it is open during the day for visitors to come and see what remains from the events of August 1908. The director of Fever River Research, Floyd Mansberger, was excited to see the next generation taking an interest in the project. The public history aspect of the project has been vital to the awareness of this project. Once this summer is over, the foundations of these houses will be reburied to make way for the new railway project. This is one of the only chance these students will have to see this hidden part of Springfield’s history before it disappears back beneath the earth. 

The tragic history of the race riots was buried for decades and has only recently started to emerge. Many of the artifacts have brought light to the lives of those who lived there and have derailed earlier assumptions about the lives of the occupants. Jewelry, war medals, and religious memorabilia have started to piece together the lives of those who have been paved over in history, just as their homes were paved over by progress. There are hopes that one day these sites could become a national park, but only time will tell. For now, it is enough to gather the evidence from the site and try to better preserve the few pieces of the lives that were upheaved over a century ago. Hopefully, the lessons learned on the race riot site will teach these students the importance of preserving history and the magnitude of silenced voices that long to be heard. 

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