One of the reasons for this blog is to mark history, and historic homes are, in a way, a marker of history. But for a long time, there wasn’t a marker for a major historic event in Columbia, Missouri: the lynching of James Scott.
This article, reprinted with permission from George Kennedy and the Columbia Missourian, is about giving one man’s life and a lynching the historic marker in the real world and in our historic knowledge.
GEORGE KENNEDY: Repairing old wounds while another opens
Oct 6, 2016
Two events last week reminded Columbians how far we’ve come along the road of racial reconciliation and how far we still have to go.
The first was the ugly confrontation that began when a group of white MU students, apparently drunk, insulted two female members of the Legion of Black Collegians. It escalated when white fraternity members shouted obscenities at LBC members who had responded to a call for help from the women. Black students replied in kind.
MU police officers arrived, separated the angry groups and made no arrests. The university suspended the Delta Upsilon fraternity while at least two campus offices investigate.
News coverage beyond Columbia included references to the turmoil of last fall and ongoing efforts to improve the University’s racial climate.
Two days later, I stood with 100 or so onlookers beside the MKT Trail at Providence and Stewart Roads to witness the unveiling of a marker that commemorates the 1923 lynching of James T. Scott.
The new plaque reads, “Lest We Forget: Lynching at the Stewart Road Bridge.”
We must not forget, among other things, the roles played by journalists, students and community leaders.
Mr. Scott was a 35-year-old decorated veteran of World War I, a janitor at the university and husband of one of Columbia’s 15 black teachers. He was a member of the Second Baptist Church.
In April 1923, he was accused of raping the 14-year-old daughter of a University professor, arrested and jailed. She identified him as her assailant, but there was no evidence to support that. Later, she would identify a different man.
Patrick J. Huber wrote in the Summer 1991 issue of the Missouri Historical Society magazine, “Columbia’s most influential paper, the Daily Tribune, provided the spark that ignited the town’s smoldering outrage.” He quoted Tribune editor Edward Watson as pointing out that three black men were currently in jail accused of separate rapes and urging, “This trio should feel the ‘halter draw’ in vindication of the law.”
Huber continued, “Less than eight hours after the newspaper hit the street, white Columbia residents responded to the Tribune’s plea for justice.”
A mob estimated at about 2,000, including 200 or so students, stormed the jail, dragged out Mr. Scott and led him, with a rope around his neck, to what was then the bridge carrying Stewart Road over the Flat Branch.
A prominent citizen, later identified in court by two MU journalism students who were present at the lynching — one reporting for the Kansas City Star and one for the St. Louis Post Dispatch — put a longer rope around Mr. Scott’s neck and threw him off the bridge. His neck was broken and he died.
The New York Times published a front-page story with the headline, “Missouri Students See Negro Lynching, Co-Eds Join Crowd Which Cheers the Storming of the Columbia Jail.”
Huber recounts that the newspaper published by the School of Journalism, then called the Columbia Evening Missourian, “took a determined stand against mob violence.” In an editorial two days after the lynching, the Missourian wrote, “The lynching cannot be undone, but Columbia can, in part, clear its name if speedy action against those who committed the crime is taken.”
Only the man identified by the students as the killer was tried. A jury including several prominent citizens needed just 11 minutes to find him not guilty.
The plaque of remembrance was sponsored by the Association of Black Graduate and Professional Students, which of course didn’t exist in 1923. That in itself was a sign of progress.
So was the pairing of Clyde Ruffin, now pastor of James Scott’s church and First Ward representative on our City Council, and Mayor Brian Treece, both of whom spoke about the importance of remembering our past and learning from it.
I hoped the fraternity members were listening.