Water and Fire in the Lawrence House
August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
One hundred and four years ago this week Springfield, Illinois, erupted into the most violent incident in the history of the home town of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. On August 14, 1908, a white mob stormed the local jail with the intent to “punish” two African-American prisoners for perceived crimes against members of the white community. When the vigilantes discovered that the sheriff had spirited the men out of town for their protection, a riot broke out. The mob rampaged for two days. They destroyed Springfield’s black neighborhood, killed eight people (including two by lynching), and injured 70. Susan’s friend Governor Deneen called 3,700 state militia troops to suppress the riot.
We know that Susan was not in town during those dark days because on August 13, 1908, the day before the race riot exploded, the Illinois State Journal “Personals” column reported the following: “Mrs. Susan Lawrence-Dana of South Fourth street has gone to Europe to spend the remainder of the summer.” However, because of her close relationship to Springfield’s African-American community at large and her black household staff in particular (see Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House), I have long felt that she would have made her home a refuge for those who were fleeing the violence.
Melinda McDonald, another volunteer at the Dana-Thomas House, has expanded that idea into a novel entitled Water and Fire. A fictionalized account of the 1908 race riot, the book relates the story of Sheba Tully, a black maid in the Lawrence House, and white reporter Elliott Loper. The two young people are thrust into the center of the riot. Through their experiences, the reader observes mankind’s cruelty, compassion, and love. Water and Fire puts faces onto those terrible statistics, and by setting the story primarily in the Lawrence House, Melinda has bridged history to today’s world in a unique way. Readers like me who are familiar with the house feel a chilling sense of reality as the tragedy unfolds in the rooms of the Lawrence House. Water and Fire is available at the Dana-Thomas House Sumac Shop.