Historical posthumous pardon hearing to be held in case of Joe James

In April 2023, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board will review a petition for posthumous clemency filed by attorneys with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) and Northwestern School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) on behalf of Joe James. The Board will hear arguments in James’s case and will make a recommendation on clemency to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. 

In the summer of 1908, Joe James was a gregarious teenager and a talented pianist traveling through the Midwest. At the start of his young adult life, James was traveling to look for opportunity; he eventually came to Springfield, Illinois and began looking for work. He soon made local connections and found a job in a saloon. James could not have known it at the time, but he would never be able to leave Illinois to return home. He was executed by the State of Illinois on October 23, 1908. 

That August, the white residents of Springfield set their town ablaze, vitriolic in their rage against two Black prisoners in the Sangamon County Jail: George Richardson and Joe James. Both men were African American, and both had been accused of the ultimate crime in Jim Crow America: assaulting or attempting to assault a white woman. 

James, who had grown up in Alabama, was known to be an open and friendly personality. Being young and Black and new to town, it was not long before local law enforcement took issue with James’s presence and told him to leave town or risk arrest. James, however, stuck around and was arrested shortly thereafter. During his initial time in Sangamon County Jail, even his jailers admitted to liking James and finding him helpful and trustworthy. They eventually sent him out to run errands for them on July 4, 1908.  Unsurprisingly, James decided to make the most of his freedom and went out for a night on the town. 

That night, a local white Springfielder named Clergy Ballard was killed after his sixteen-year-old daughter called out that there was an intruder in the house. Ballard rushed downstairs, tangled with the stranger, and later died of knife wounds he incurred during the struggle. No member of Ballard’s family clearly saw the attacker. The next morning, James was found sleeping in a nearby park. James’s presence in the neighborhood was enough for the Ballard family to assume his guilt; they savagely beat James to the point of unrecognizability and called the police to arrest him for murder. The press avidly published James as guilty—not only of killing the well-liked white union member, Clergy Ballard, but of breaking into his home to sexually assault his sixteen-year-old daughter, Blanche. 

James was held in the Sangamon County Jail that summer until he was joined by another Black man named George Richardson. The Springfield Race Riot* began when a mob of white Springfielders—outraged by the arrest of George Richardson for allegedly raping a white woman, Mabel Hallam—gathered outside the Sangamon County jail and demanded that the Sheriff turn over both James and Richardson. When the mob, which soon numbered in the thousands, learned that the Sheriff had surreptitiously moved the men to another jail outside of Springfield, violence targeted at Springfield’s Black community erupted. The mob tore through Springfield, leveling sections of its Black neighborhoods and businesses, attacking its Black residents, and ultimately lynching two local Black businessmen named Scott Burton and William Donegan. 

Two weeks after the Riot, while Springfield’s Black community still lay in ruins, Hallam admitted she had lied about the attack, clearing Richardson but leaving James as the sole target for white rage in Springfield. In the days leading up to James’ trial, angry whites hung effigies of James near the courthouse and anonymously threatened to lynch James and run any remaining Black Springfielders out of town unless Joe James was hanged.  

It was in this environment of extreme racial tension and white anger that James was forced to undergo trial for murder only a month after the mob lynched Scott Burton and William Donegan and burned Black Springfield to the ground. His petition for change of venue out of Sangamon County was denied, and James was convicted by an all-white jury in the same county where the violence had occurred, and where every single one of the hundreds of white rioters had been acquitted or otherwise cleared of any responsibility for the violence.  

It is because of this deeply biased treatment amounting to deprivation of a fair trial that CRRJ and Northwestern’s CWC argue James must be posthumously pardoned for the murder of Clergy Ballard. A pardon for Joe James represents an opportunity for healing in Springfield and another step towards justice for James and all Black Americans unjustly executed during the Jim Crow era. 

* While the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 is rightfully considered a Massacre, the writers have maintained use of the term “Riot” for consistency with records within the state of Illinois. The violence of the Riot was incited entirely by an enraged white mob, which lynched two Black men and razed entire blocks of Black Springfield.  

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