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1908 Illinois race riot was impetus behind founding of the NAACP

When an African-American was accused of raping a white woman and another of murdering a white locomotive engineer, Springfield, Ill., exploded into a race riot on the evening of Aug. 14, 1908.

The mob grew furious when they learned that the two men had been spirited away to Bloomington, Ill., by the sheriff.

Sensing trouble, Gov. Charles S. Deneen sent the National Guard to the city to restore order, but the rioters were not to be stopped.

After destroying a small black business district, the mob turned its fury on Badlands, a black neighborhood, where they burned some 40 homes while a crowd of 5,000 spectators looked on.

An African-American barber who had tried to defend his shop was lynched. A black man who had been married to a white woman for more than 30 years suffered a similar fate.

Before the riot ended, in addition to the two African-Americans, five white people were killed in the violence that swept the city.

Joe James, who had murdered the engineer, was eventually tried, found guilty and hanged, while the other man was freed after the woman recanted her charge.

The birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People evolved from the Niagara Movement, which gathered under the auspices of W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and Harvard scholar. But it was against the background of the Springfield Riots that northern white liberals met with African-American activists, signing the founding document of the NAACP.

In 1909, prominent whites such as Mary White Ovington, a suffragette, socialist and journalist; Oswald Garrison Villard, journalist and editor; William English Walling, a labor reformer and socialist; and Dr. Henry Moscowitz, a civil rights activist, joined hands in New York City with their African-Americans counterparts.

Joining Du Bois were Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching crusader, journalist and suffragette, and Mary Church Terrell, civil rights activist and suffragette, among other important black civil rights activists.

They and others signed what was known as "the call," which became the NAACP's founding document.

It could not have come on a more emotionally significant day than Feb. 12, 1909, the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln.

Its goals were to fight lynch mobs and eradicate racial prejudice. The NAACP also demanded political, educational, social and economic equality for minority Americans.

Baltimore's first civil rights organization was the Brotherhood of Liberty, founded in 1885 by the Rev. Harvey Johnson, pastor of Union Baptist Church, and three other local pastors. It agitated for civil rights and sought to remove other injustices suffered by black citizens.

It later became the home of the second NAACP chapter to be established in the United States.

A news report published in the Afro-American on April 6, 1912, announced that a mass meeting would be held April 12 at Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue, with the purpose of establishing a local branch of the organization. W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary W. Ovington, J.E. Milholland and Oswald Garrison Villard would be the speakers.

"The meeting will be held under the auspices of the local branch of the Association for the Advancement of Colored People and will be for the purpose of calling the attention of Baltimoreans to the splendid work that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is doing for the race," said the news story.

"While many are disposed to assert that the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is mainly negative," said Du Bois, "in that we protest against discriminations against the race, we are trying to do a most needed work in aiding promising young men and women of the race."

The NAACP Baltimore chapter was founded in the living room of W. Ashbie Hawkins' home at 929 Arlington Ave. in Govans.

Hawkins, who was one of the city's first African-American lawyers and had waged battles against residential segregation ordinances and Jim Crow accommodations on boats and trains, served as counsel to the local NAACP branch for years.

Through the years, the Baltimore chapter generated a number of civil rights leaders who became prominent in the movement both locally and nationally.

In 1931, Lillie Carol Jackson organized a Baltimore boycott that encouraged African-American citizens to avoid patronizing stores that were not welcoming to them. The slogan was "Buy Where You Can Work."

She fought for equal pay in 1938 for both white and black teachers throughout the state.

Jackson, who headed the chapter from 1935 to 1970, led the civil rights group's Maryland conference from 1942 to 1962. She also was credited with expanding the local chapter's membership to more than 20,000.

Thurgood Marshall, who was the first African-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, began working with the NAACP in Baltimore in 1934.

In 1930, Marshall had applied to the University of Maryland Law School and was denied admission on the basis of his color. Working as a young civil rights lawyer, he successfully argued the 1935 case that integrated the University of Maryland Law School, allowing Donald Gaines Murray to enroll in the school.

He eventually rose to become chief counsel for the NAACP.

Jackson's daughter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, a lawyer who once said she had spent most of her life fighting the racism and segregation that had made life a "living hell" for African-Americans in Maryland, served as legal counsel to the Baltimore chapter.

Enolia P. McMillan, an educator who was elected Baltimore president in 1969, succeeding Jackson, became the first female president of the NAACP in 1984.

McMillan also played a pivotal role in 1986, when the NAACP's national headquarters was moved from New York City to Baltimore, remaining here for the past 26 years.

Another prominent leader was Kweisi Mfume, who served on the City Council and then as a Democratic congressman from the 7th District from 1986 until 1996, when he was named NAACP president. He stepped down in 2000.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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