The Lynching of My Husband’s Ancestor Shocked a Nation

Damage to black residential area during race riots in Springfield, Ill., in 1908
Wikimedia Commons
Damage to black residential area during race riots in Springfield, Ill., in 1908
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

I am seeking help with finding the parents of my husband’s four-times-great-grandmother Leanna Donegan Knox (born in 1794 in Hopkinsville, Ky.). She was mulatto and, according to an Illinois Servitude and Emancipation record, the daughter of a white woman. She owned land in Todd, Ky., until 1847, when she was “removed” to Illinois. I found an article online with the following information regarding that land:

“R-127: 21 June 1847, Leann Knox late Leann Dunagan of Christian Co. KY to William Duncan of Todd Co. KY, $32, 60 acres on head waters of big Whipporwill, deeded by Christopher Gordon to Nelson Green, Wyley Dunagon for me, title bond by Dunagon to James Littell as trustee for Harriet Jane Gusty, bond to W.G. Davis and by Davis to said Duncan. Wit. Jos. Hollingsworth, L.F. Hollingsworth. (FHL film 355,911)”

As a free woman, she “owned” her husband, Joe (or Joel) Knox. She had seven children, one of whom was William Donegan, who was murdered in the 1908 Race Riots of Springfield, which led to the beginning of the NAACP. His brother, Presley, was my husband’s third great-grandfather. With so many interesting details of their lives, I am eager to know more about Leanna Donegan Knox and her parents. —Tammy Tynes Ferguson

As you noted in your question, members of this family were part of tragic and pivotal events in American history.


The Springfield Race Riot of 1908

Leanna’s son William Donegan was around 80 years old when he was brutally lynched during the Springfield Race Riot. He was not suspected in the original incidents that sparked the mob violence: the killing of the white engineer Clergy Ballard by the black teen Joe James and the alleged rape of a white married woman, Mabel Hallam, by a black laborer named George Richardson. A white crowd surrounded the Sangamon County Jail on Aug. 14, 1908, bent on lynching the two suspects, but the black men were “spirited out of town,” leaving the mob to vent its anger elsewhere.

The mob’s rage was directed at local black businesses, as well as several unfortunate individuals. Scott Burton, a black man, died defending his barbershop from rioters. William Donegan, a shoemaker and self-made man, may have been targeted for having been married to a white woman (named Sarah), which was a social taboo in turn-of-the-20th-century America, though legal in Illinois at the time.

When all was said and done, several thousand state troopers had been brought in to quell the violence, and thousands of Springfield residents had lost their homes and businesses. Two blacks and four whites lost their lives, and around 70 people were injured, according to the Encyclopedia of African American History. The Sangamon County Historical Society writes, “James was later convicted of killing Ballard; he was executed Oct. 23, 1908. Richardson was exonerated after Hallam admitted fabricating her story of the rape.” Meanwhile, as you noted, the carnage—which took place in the hometown of the Great Emancipator, President Abraham Lincoln—had been a catalyst in the founding of the NAACP on Feb. 12, 1909, the centennial of his birth.


Leanna Donegan, a Free Woman of Color

Now let’s turn our attention to the woman from whom William Donegan undoubtedly inherited his drive to chart his own unique path in life: Leanna Donegan. First, we examined the original documents of her emancipation and the deed that you located online. It is always a good idea to examine the original records, since information can sometimes be transcribed incorrectly or there may be additional information in the record that is not included in the transcription. (By the way, the language stating that she was “removed” is typical jargon for relocation in land and other documents at the time, and does not necessarily mean that she was forced to move. In this case, the family was leaving Kentucky and settling in Illinois.)


In the case of the deed you referenced, the citation included notes that the deed is on “(FHL film 355,911)," meaning the Family History Library film number 355911. When you search the Family History Library catalog on FamilySearch for the film number, you’ll find that it is referencing Todd County, Kentucky Deeds Volumes Q-R 1845-1848. The reference online tells you that the record is in volume R, page 127. You could order this film and view it at a Family History Center location near you.

There may have been other land records of which Leanna was a party, so you may also want to check the index to the collection (film 1877112) for any additional records. You will likely want to do some research on the other individuals involved in the land transaction to see if records for them may reveal more about her history. Likewise, you could contact the Illinois State Archives for a copy of the original emancipation record.


In the meantime, there are a few things we learned just from the database. There are a number of references to the record for Leana Donegan in the database. In one (the link you provided), it states that Leana Donegan was the mother of Caroline Lee and the daughter of a free white woman. The record also notes that the other party in this record was Francis Briston. An additional reference in the database states that the record originated in Hopkinsville, Ky., and that 21 witnesses had signed the record, the names of which are all recorded in the document. Finally, a third entry for the record in the database states that Leana was 50 years old and that she was taking with her to Illinois her husband, Joe Knox, “who is said belongs to her by purchase,” and her son, Presly, and grandson Leander; as well as her daughter, Caroline Lee; Caroline’s husband, Peter Lee; and their children. This provides you with a number of individuals to research to see if you can locate more information on Leanna Donegan.

This emancipation document may have been created for a number of reasons, the first being that she was being emancipated for the first time. In this case, you will certainly want to investigate Francis Briston further, since he is likely the former slave owner, given that he is listed as the second party on the document in the database. It is also possible that Leanna was already a free woman before this document was created and that she was having this document made as proof of her freedom, and the freedom of her family members, before moving to Illinois.


While Illinois had abolished slavery in 1818, it still had laws in place to discourage free blacks from moving to the state and required that they produce legal documentation that they were free and of good character. In most states, children took on the status of their mother, so if Leanna was born to a free white woman as the document claims, she may have been born free, since that was the status of her mother.

What Happened Before the Emancipation Record Was Signed?

We were not able to locate Leanna Donegan under her name in the 1840 U.S. census to prove that she was free prior to this emancipation record in 1847. However, when we searched for the surname Knox in Christian County, Ky. (where the deed you located took place), we were able to locate a Jo Knox who may have been in the correct household.


According to the record, the household had one female free person of color age 36 to 54 that would be a match for your Leanna and one male slave age 36 to 54 that would match her husband, Joe Knox, since we know from the emancipation document that Leanna had purchased him and his status was likely still that of a slave. This may seem cruel, but they most likely maintained this status for him in Kentucky for his own protection or in an effort to stay together. Professor Gates has written about this phenomenon before for The Root. Also in the household were four other free persons of color, all under the age 23, who could be their children who were also born free based on the status of their mother; and three other slaves, who may also be children or other relations whom they were trying to keep together. This record suggests that Leanna was, in fact, free prior to the emancipation record in 1847.

We were unable to locate a census document that seemed to match either Leanna or Joe earlier than 1840. It could be that she was still in an indenture or enslaved prior to this date, or was residing in the household of someone else. This is where researching some of the other individuals in the documents may prove helpful.


It seems likely that Leanna Donegan was previously connected to Francis Briston in some way, possibly a former slave owner. We located F M Briston in Todd County, Kentucky in 1840. This is the county where Leanna Donegan’s deed was recorded in 1847 and is likely the Francis Briston who signed her emancipation in the neighboring county at Hopkinsville, Christian County, Ky. At this time, he had five slaves in his household. In the 1850 United States Census Slave Schedules, he had 10 slaves recorded in his household.

It seems possible that Leanna was connected to him and/or these slaves somehow. Further searching for Briston’s papers, such as account, deed or probate records, may yield information on Leanna. We also noted that Briston was a lawyer, according to the 1850 census, so it is also possible that he was her lawyer for her emancipation document, which is why he was listed as a second party. This is where examining the original emancipation record would prove helpful, since it may list their relationship.


Additionally, searching for related families may also help answer some questions. While we were searching, we noted a George Lee and a James and Jesse Lee who were all recorded as free people of color in Todd County, Ky., in 1840. We know that Leanna’s daughter Caroline married a Peter Lee; perhaps these are relatives who may be worth further investigation, which may also reveal more about the community of free people of color in the area where Leanna lived.

Good luck in your continuing search!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.

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