In the throes of a historic race riot, Hospital Sisters provided haven for wounded

April 1, 2016


"At 10 p.m., Sister M. Magdalene Wiedlocher, who was on night duty, encouraged the patients to go to bed, but a number refused because they claimed that there would be terrible happenings. Soon, about a dozen men were brought into the emergency department of St. John's Hospital for treatment of gun wounds — the race riots had begun."

— From the Archives of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis

When one of the worst anti-black race riots in American history began in Springfield, Ill., in 1908, the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis and their hospital, St. John's Hospital, offered refuge from the violence and cared for the injured, blacks alongside of whites.

Now, HSHS St. John's Hospital plans to memorialize the victims of this tragic event and the sisters' compassionate response as part of a new women's and children's medical building planned for its hospital campus in downtown Springfield. The building, a joint project with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, will be constructed on Ninth Street on property adjacent to where the riots raged over a century ago.

A postcard image taken of building and property damaged during the 1908 race riot perpetrated by a vigilante mob of whites in Springfield, ILL.

The hospital decided to pursue a memorial after an archaeological excavation uncovered the foundations of seven houses — some destroyed in the riot — just outside the hospital property. The excavation was federally required for a railroad relocation project. A decision on how to memorialize the victims likely will be made this spring, with construction of the building starting in the fall.

"The 1908 race riot was a tragic event that cannot be forgotten," said Dr. Charles Lucore, St. John's president and chief executive. "Because St. John's played a role in caring for the victims, we have an obligation to do our part to ensure this part of our shared history is remembered by future generations."

Igniting civil rights activism
The race riot of 1908 is especially significant because it's credited as a main impetus for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. According to the NAACP website, the riot shocked many people across the nation, particularly as it occurred in the northern city where Abraham Lincoln is buried.

The riot erupted after a mob of thousands of vigilante whites showed up at the city jail, demanding to be handed two black men who were being held on suspicion of crimes against whites, the Illinois State Journal reported at the time. After learning authorities had secretly moved the prisoners to another location, and over the course of about two days and nights, the white mobs shot and brutalized black people, torching about 40 homes of blacks and businesses mainly in black neighborhoods. Firemen stood vigil on the hospital's roof to keep the flames from reaching and burning down the hospital, and it was not damaged, according to a first person account by Sr. Wiedlocher in the Hospital Sisters' archives.

During the riot, two prominent older black leaders were dragged out of their homes and lynched. One, about 80 years old, pleaded for his life but his throat was cut and the mob hanged him from a tree, said Doris Bailey, a board member of the African-American History Museum in Springfield. The other was hanged, then riddled with bullets, Bailey said. Later, one of the two black men who had been the mob's original target was released from police custody after a white woman said she had fabricated her assault accusations against him.

"The number of deaths accounted for is between five and seven, yet, the truth could be — and probably is — higher," Bailey said.

The archives of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis say that, despite the horrific violence, inside St. John's Hospital, there was some peace: "When no more rooms were available at the hospital, patients were laid on mattresses on the floor — black and white patients lying side by side. Interestingly, once the injured entered St. John's Hospital, they set aside all prejudice, antagonism, and hatred."

Public input
In November, St. John's held a standing-room-only town hall meeting to solicit ideas from the public for how to commemorate the victims.

The hospital is investigating establishing internships for young African-Americans and plans to name the internship after victims of the race riots. The internships are among 25 ideas being considered. Other suggestions include a large mural outside the building, a healing garden, a statue, plaque and historical displays in the building, said Brian Reardon, a spokesman for St. John's and vice president of external relations for Hospital Sisters Health System.

Hospital Sisters Health System plans to erect a medical building in an area of Springfield, Ill., that was decimated in 1908 when a white mob went on a deadly rampage through African-American neighborhoods. HSHS is engaging the community in planning a memorial to the innocent victims of the riot and the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, who treated the injured at St. John's Hospital.

The hospital, working with architects, will select those ideas that can be "brought to life to best tell the story of this chapter in Springfield's and the Hospital Sisters' history," Lucore said. "From the accounts I've read, our sisters embodied the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and the love of Jesus Christ in caring for the victims. Their calm and reassuring presence was needed during the aftermath of the riot.

"Whatever we do, whether it's a mural or healing garden, for example, we will incorporate the story of the sisters' role in care for victims of the race riot," Lucore said.

The hospital has worked closely with a cross-section of community activists, faith leaders, social service providers, educators and elected officials. Among them are Douglas King, president of the African-American History Museum in Springfield and Teresa Haley, president of both the state and local branches of the NAACP.

King said the African-American community appreciates the hospital's desire to create a memorial and give the community a strong role in planning.

"For many years, Springfield did not want to talk about the race riot because it was such a horrible event in the city's history," King said. "It's amazing how much it has come into the forefront in recent times." The hospital's contribution will be "an important effort to make sure it's not forgotten," King said.

The community involvement is important to Lucore. "St. John's is interwoven into the fabric of Springfield and we feel strongly that we need ongoing community input in how we can best meet the needs of those we are privileged to serve," he said. "This project is a perfect example of how we seek dialogue with the community when we embark on a major initiative."

The hospital plans to meet again with the advisory group this spring and hopes to begin construction this fall.

The $40 million, 140,000-square-foot building not far from the state Capitol will include physicians' outpatient clinics, labs and services. It will be connected by a bridge to St. John's Children's Hospital.


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.