Race, Gender, and Restoring Order on “Riot Duty” in Illinois, 1894–1908

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:40 PM
Michigan State Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Eleanor L. Hannah, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne
From the Pullman Strikes of 1894 to the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, Illinois National Guardsmen were called upon to ‘restore order’ more than two dozen times.  In each instance, Guardsmen negotiated a complicated terrain as they struggled to identify both the source of the ‘disorder’ and what ‘order’ looked like, so that it could be restored. Guardsmen developed a complex matrix of cues to help them identify the cause of the disorder and how best to remove or defuse it.  Two important elements of this matrix were race and gender. The presence of women on the streets or in the crowds almost always was read as sign of a ‘riot’ or a ‘mob,’ especially if the women were active participants, yelling, spitting, cursing, etc.  Order was restored, in these instances, when formerly disorderly women resumed their proper place in an orderly community.  In contrast, the presence of African Americans, as observers or participants, was not such a clear signal.  Guardsmen understood that some of the conflicts turned on race—for example, in Springfield in 1908.  On other occasions, however, even the presence of armed, black strikebreakers was not enough for Guardsmen to frame what was happening as a ‘race riot,’ and they persisted in referring to, understanding and treating the event as a labor dispute and their task as strike duty. 

 A close reading of the instances of active duty service on the part of the Illinois National Guard between 1894 and 1908 sheds light on the complex interplay of gender and race in how Guardsmen understood and responded to their assigned tasks. Guardsmen held relatively fixed understandings of orderly and disorderly gendered behavior, yet held complex and fluid responses to race as a confounding factor in civil unrest.

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