Tuesday, October 22, 2019

UIS student Katie Brethorst helps to excavate 1908 Springfield Race Riot site

University of Illinois Springfield senior history major Katie Brethorst spent her summer helping to unearth important historical artifacts from the site of the 1908 Springfield Race Riot, located along the 10th Street railroad tracks and Madison Street in Springfield.

Brethorst interned with Fever River Research, an archaeology company based out of Springfield, which was tasked with excavating five homes that were burned during the riot. The riot served as a catalyst for the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

On the evening of Aug. 14, 1908, a mob of white Springfield citizens became enraged when the county sheriff would not hand over a black man accused of raping a local white woman. For two days, Springfield was the scene of violence directed at the city’s black citizens, resulting in the destruction of more than 40 buildings by fire, and the lynching of two innocent black men. The black man accused of the crime was later acquitted after his accuser recanted her story.

During the excavation, Brethorst helped unearth the foundations of the forgotten homes and uncover important relics, such as rings, crosses and pieces of clothing.

“I learned about hands-on archaeology,” she said. “I learned about how you can connect an artifact that you're finding to historical documents. I learned a lot about the history of the people who lived here and I learned about the specific processes you have to go to make sure history is presentable to the public.”

Brethorst, who wants to become a museum curator, describes unearthing the artifacts as both an emotional and education experience.

“There were some days when you would find something and realize someone lost everything in this fire,” she said. “Someone had to completely uproot their life because of this one event and here I am holding the remnants 111 years later. It was just so powerful some days that I'd have to walk off and just think about it for a little bit.”

The site where Brethorst worked is now being recovered with dirt and will soon be home to railroad tracks as part of the Springfield Rail Improvement Project. However, there are still more houses to excavate under a parking lot next to the site.

“This site is nominated to become a national historic location,” she said. “Hopefully it will become a monument and we’ll be able to excavate more houses. That's the dream!”

Brethorst credits her experiences inside and outside of the classroom at the University of Illinois Springfield for helping her land an internship she’ll remember for a lifetime.

“I don't think anyone else is going to be able to say that they got to help unearth one of the biggest disasters in American history. And to me, that's what it is,” she said. “I got to help be the person to uncover it and to find the artifacts. It was absolutely amazing!”

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