reflections on a week of archival fieldwork in springfield, il

I drafted this blog post on the train back from my week of archival fieldwork in Springfield, IL, for my dissertation chapter about the pogrom against Black residents of East St. Louis, IL, in May and July 1917. I write this post to document the methodological decisions and logistics behind my archival work, both so they’re fresh in mind and so that others facing relevant circumstances might benefit from my experiences. After introducing my project, I discuss (1) my preparation for archival work; (2) my documentation and research process; and (3) flexibility in the field. I also conclude by discussing the financial and COVID-related public health dimensions of my research trip, since these two topics were the “meta-context” for the work I’ve done in the past week.

Briefly, my dissertation research explores (1) why organizers use pogroms to target some groups, but not others, and (2) why these episodes result in violence in some locations, but not others. The East St. Louis case is one of four historical episodes under focus, the others spanning Nazi Germany, elsewhere in the United States, and the United Kingdom. My archival research during this past week centered on the second question, rather than the first. Methodologically, the work demonstrates how researchers can use the remarkable record of historical information about the early 20th century United States—census data, municipal records, and newspaper materials, among other resources—to explain the group-targeted violence that underpins this country’s political development.

Preparation for archival work: The advance work for my Springfield research involved three categories of tasks: First, I reviewed the historiography of the pogrom episode. This involved a skim-level reread of the three main monographs about the episode: Elliott Rudwick’s Race Riot at East St. Louis; Malcolm McLaughlin’s Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis; and Charles Lumpkins’s American Pogrom. The purpose of this review was threefold: (1) to identify key actors and timelines before and during the violence; (2) to understand competing interpretations of the causes and patterns of violence during the pogrom; and (3) to identify the newspaper records, investigation reports, and municipal records on which historians have relied.

This preparation work led me to select two archives in Springfield as my first research site for documenting the pogrom: (1) the Illinois State Archives, which contain municipal records, census information, and a few miscellaneous materials about government and commerce in East St. Louis during the 1910s; and (2) the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, which includes published documents about the history of the state and its counties, as well as—I discovered during my trip—the most comprehensive microfilm collection of Illinois newspapers in the state. I expected that the State Archives would be the most productive source of relevant materials, such that I would spend most of my week there. Having corresponded with one of their archivists about a tranche of digitized census records last December, I scheduled a formal appointment at the State Archives. I didn’t schedule a formal appointment at the Presidential Library, but I was able to receive a researcher card and schedule appointments for subsequent days soon after my arrival.

My last category of preparatory tasks took place in the archives themselves. I quickly realized that my archival search would involve a combination of different types of documents, as they relate to my core project: (1) true positives, or documents that I asked for after a database search and found useful; (2) false starts, or documents that I asked for and didn’t find useful; (3) discoveries, or documents that I identified in the course of poking around the archival space or talking with archivists and found useful; and (4) forgettable items, or documents that I identified in the course of poking around and didn’t find useful. With apologies for the 2-by-2:

 Expected to findDid not expect to find
Useful to project goalsTrue positivesDiscoveries
Not usefulFalse startsForgettable items
Table 1: A typology of archival finds

This variety of archival discovery suggested that I couldn’t rely on the list of documents that I had requested over email or in the archive’s digital request portal for comprehensive archival record-keeping. I needed to document all materials that I came across, their location, when I reviewed them, and whether I was able to create digital copies for further review. (Due credit to Diana Kapiszewski and Lauren MacLean for introducing this idea in their 2017 Institute for Qualitative and Multi-method Research fieldwork module.) I prefer to take these notes by hand when doing archival work, as I’m prone to multitasking with access to a laptop. Here’s an image of the handwritten “Documents I looked at” chart that I used while in the archives:

Each time I viewed a new document collection, I added it to the chart, so that I can access it at some later date if necessary. I also added collections or materials that came up in the course of my research, but which were not available in archives in Springfield. For example, an August 1917 Congressional hearing about the East St. Louis pogrom included testimony by an American Red Cross worker and employee of Howard University in Washington, DC, who witnessed the pogrom firsthand. Noting in my chart her contribution to the historical record of the pogrom flags that I need to do additional research to identify the location of her personal papers or the records that she used to prepare her testimony.

Documentation and research process: Because my research question for this part of the dissertation centers on a “what explains Y, rather than not-Y” puzzle, my research process in Springfield focused on answering that question. As I suggest above, I’m interested in additional questions about the East St. Louis episode, such as why the pogrom targeted Black residents rather than members of other groups. There are also other compelling questions that other researchers might ask about East St. Louis, such as how Black residents of this industrial boom town interpreted, memorialized, and made sense of the violence against them. But those questions were not the focus of this fieldwork. In light of my main question and constraints on my time, I wanted to gather as much material, as systematically as possible, to allow for subsequent quantitative data collection and statistical analysis of the determinants of pogrom violence. The archive itself enabled this well: the documents from the Illinois state government, federal government, East St. Louis municipal government, newspapers, and personal papers of state officials were organized and categorized in accessible boxes or microfilm, with few mismarked files.

This archival “pre-processing” made the collection and categorization of records easier than in archives that lack this organizational structure. For some collections, such as the personal papers of state officials, I relied on a “use what’s available” approach. For others, such as the newspaper reports, I needed a more systematic sampling strategy to bound the universe of relevant reporting about the pogrom. To facilitate both approaches, I created a series of Google Drive folders, in which I stored scanned PDFs of brief documents that I was able to find in the archives. Later this week, I’ll create a comprehensive database of each document in the Google Drive, so that I have an easy-to-access record of the documents I have a have and have not reviewed. For a small subset of longer documents about the violence that are not available online, I created a handwritten chart that tracks relevant information about the pogrom that will aid my subsequent data collection:

I recorded some field notes after returning from my daily walks, but these were for the purpose of recounting my experiences rather than for explicit reflexive analysis of my relationship with or role in my data collection process. I might have approached these reflections from a personal standpoint: I encounter my archival material as a White person from New York and Alexandria, VA; despite no direct exposure to the anti-Black violence that I describe in my dissertation, I draw material benefits from the racial order that historical episodes like the East St. Louis pogrom created. Alternately, I might have reflected on the space in which I was conducting research: in his history of the East St. Louis pogrom, Charles Lumpkins draws a direct comparison to the scale and political consequences of Springfield’s own 1908 episode. Springfield informed how Illinois state officials, East St. Louis residents, and national anti-lynching groups like the NAACP, which formed after Springfield, responded to the East St. Louis violence. At a glance, both past anti-Black violence and contemporary patterns of overpolicing, residential segregation, and unequal access to both public goods and private wealth make up the general context in which the State Archives and Presidential Library—my two research sites—are located. I was unable to discern, however, the precise process by which this historical and contemporary violence in Springfield influenced my research results—that is, whether I observed an instance of violence in the historical record of the East St. Louis pogrom. This may have been a function of information I lack about the newspaper archive, or about my relative distance from the site of violence itself. At any rate, both forms of reflexivity—the personal and the spatial—require more puzzling-over than my first post-fieldwork glance has allowed.

Flexibility in the field: Giving myself space to rearrange plans while in the archives and in my interactions with the surrounding community in Springfield was advantageous. To illustrate: In the archives, my initial instinct about “useful documents” led to a dead end. I had expected that the documentary records of the Illinois grain inspection office in East St. Louis would provide a novel “micro” measure of state capacity or patronage. East St. Louis in the early 1910s was a critical commercial hub for the rail-based domestic grain trade through Chicago to the American East, and its grain inspection office an important bottleneck for the state’s then-burgeoning regulatory administration. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about the documentary record. Far from documenting extensive regulatory activity or state-linked patronage systems in East St. Louis, the payroll vouchers revealed that the local grain inspection office employed less than a dozen grain inspectors, office clerks, and statisticians at a steady pay rate from 1914 — 1917. This might be an interesting factoid for an economic history of the city, but it’s not much on which to build a credible measure of state capacity. These documents were a central justification for the trip, as they were one of a select few documents that the State Archives were unable to digitize. In true “the food is awful — and such small portions!” fashion, half of the documents in the collection were from the central grain inspection office in Chicago, rather than East St. Louis itself. I finished scanning in the payroll documents by close-of-business Monday; how was I supposed to spend the rest of the week?

I had planned to visit the Presidential Library the following day, Tuesday. When I arrived, I accessed the personal papers and correspondence of the Illinois lieutenant governor who had helped to deploy National Guard troops to suppress the July 1917 violence, as well as a report that the Illinois Council of Defense—the board that coordinated the state’s contributions to the US war effort during World War I—prepared about the first wave of anti-Black attacks in May 1917. A brief conversation with the archivists, however, revealed that the Presidential Library maintained the state’s largest collection of Illinois newspapers, including multiple local papers from other large cities in St. Clair County. That brief conversation transformed a dead-end hunch into three days of scouring through microfilm:

Pivoting on a dime was also helpful beyond the archives. My train back to DC was on Sunday, so I spent my Saturday—when the archives were closed—wandering the mile radius of my hotel. Near Lincoln’s resting place at Oak Ridge Cemetery is a regional African-American history museum, which I’d seen advertised in pamphlets around town. My familiarity with Springfield history is limited to Roberta Senechal de la Roche’s book on the 1908 violence, so I was curious to explore further; in particular, the museum was advertising an exhibit about the Springfield violence. After stopping by the local farmers’ market at the city center, I walked up to the museum around 11. Having failed to check their Saturday schedule, I met a volunteer who informed me that the museum was not yet open, but wouldn’t I come back for a lecture by a “local civil rights leader” at 1:30. After purchasing a donut and some lunch, I returned at 1:30 on the dot. The lecturer was a museum board member, who had participated in civil disobedience actions in Jackson, Mississippi in support of the Freedom Democratic Party and later worked as a civil rights lawyer in the state. After his remarks, I talked briefly with a few volunteers and asked whether a similar institution existed for the East St. Louis area. One of the volunteers suggested a potential contact, and offered that I could use her name in making the introduction. Much like organizing, historical inquiry operates through these networks of trust and reciprocity; the research enterprise can’t exist without them.

Finances: I estimate that the total cost of my week in Springfield—including two “layovers” in Chicago—was about $1,000. This amount includes seven nights at a hotel near the archives ($435), a round-trip train ticket from DC to Springfield ($200), groceries ($100), and various downtime activities (a minor league baseball game, a couple of trips to the local microbrewery, an hour at a local record store, and meals with my two siblings in Chicago at either end of my trip). I’ve done my PhD work in relative financial comfort, having benefited from consistent part-time employment, no small degree of family support, and—for most of the time—a two-income household in addition to five guaranteed years of PhD funding from Georgetown. However, I decided to work off the cost of the trip with a last-minute teaching assistant job in an early summer course. I raise this not as an abstract declaration of privilege, but because these material conditions affected my logistical decisions about fieldwork. In light of that context, a few notes on this amount:

The hotel was the least expensive form of reliable housing I was able to find in Springfield, as (1) short-term rentals through Airbnb were expensive—above $650 for the full week—and located far from the city center; and (2) generous housing outreach on my behalf by faculty at the University of Illinois at Springfield did not yield viable options. Researchers looking to book similar-term stays in the United States might be interested to learn that I received a discounted rate after calling the hotel and asking for their “weekly rate,” which trimmed the online list price from $84 / night to approximately $62.

I opted to get from DC to Springfield by train because there’s no better way to travel in Joe Biden’s America. I didn’t compare the price of the round-trip train ticket to the price of airfare—I haven’t flown since February 2020—but I imagine the two options were comparable in price. The train was a blissful and inefficient way to cover the 1,000 miles from DC to Springfield. On the one hand, I passed through many locations and ecosystems I haven’t spent much time exploring, despite living in DC for 12 years. On the other, the trains were late to arrive in both Chicago and Springfield on my way out, and late to depart Springfield and arrive in DC on the way home.

The groceries-in-the-hotel-mini-fridge approach worked well, and proved more economical than eating out. This won’t surprise anyone who relies on the grocery store for most of their meals. With few exceptions, my lunches and dinners were all “homemade”; breakfast came with the room. Some classic hotel-room meals were: Monday mac-n-cheese night, Annie Chun’s peanut noodles with canned smoked oysters, and a loaf’s worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Eating (and drinking) out for lunch and dinner would’ve cost between about three times as much as I spent on groceries, with many fewer vegetables.

COVID safety: I left for my trip as the fourth wave of COVID-19 infection in the United States was gathering speed. I received the one-shot J&J vaccine in March. As best I can tell, current science reporting suggests that the J&J holds up against the now-dominant Delta variant; I have not sought out a second shot to “boost” its effects. At time of writing, eligible (above-12) residents of Sangamon County, where Springfield is located, are about 58 percent vaccinated, compared to 69 percent in my home county of Alexandria. I share this all as background information rather than to assess my personal risk of transmitting COVID to others, which is difficult to gauge under the best of circumstances.

While in Springfield, I took the following steps to limit my risk of transmitting COVID: (1) I wore a KN95 mask on the train out and back, except when eating and drinking; (2) when eating and drinking, I wore a double-layered cloth mask; (3) I ate all meals in my hotel room or in outside locations at bars and restaurants; and (4) I wore a double-layered cloth mask in the archives, all common spaces at the hotel, all indoor spaces at shops and restaurants, and all crowded outdoor locations. I did not take a COVID test prior to my departure.

During my stay, almost all other hotel residents and staff were unmasked in common spaces, including children. A sign on the elevator indicated that masks were no longer required for vaccinated guests, and that the hotel “strongly recommended” masks for unvaccinated individuals. The lack of mask compliance was especially striking because the hotel appeared to be a waystation for guests visiting family members at the large hospital down the street. In the archives, all staff wore masks. Mask compliance on the train was higher than in Springfield, as Amtrak mandates and regularly enforces mask-wearing for all passengers.