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In our ongoing Sense of Place series, we explore the history of the Ozarks in order to determine why things are the way that they are in our community. For this story, KSMU’s Emma Wilson takes a look at one of the more disturbing events in the history of Springfield and how the impact is still felt today.
Prior to 1906, the African-American population of Springfield is estimated to have been between 10 and 20 percent. There were black-owned businesses, black leaders of the community, and though Springfield was segregated, there were relatively good relations between black and white members of the community. Springfield was even seen as a safe-haven for African-Americans who felt unwelcome in more rural areas of southwest Missouri.
All of this changed, however, when three black men were lynched on the public square during Easter weekend, 1906.
It all began when a young white woman named Mina Edwards and her friend Charles Cooper claimed they had been assaulted, and Edwards raped, by two black men the night of Good Friday. Despite Cooper’s claim that the men had been wearing masks, the police began looking for two men matching his descriptions.
“They came up with two men named Coker and Duncan and they arrested them--the city police did.” John Sellars is the director of the Springfield-Greene County History Museum. He says that not long after those two had been arrested, the man that Horace Duncan and Fred Coker worked for came and vouched for them.
Sellers says, “They were both laborers at the Pickwick Transport Company and they had been loading freight all night long. [They] had been with him [so it] couldn’t possibly have been them and so they were released.”
Released…only to be arrested again just a few hours later-supposedly for their own protection- as rumors grew that a lynch mob was forming. Sellars says when the crowd descended on the jail (near the intersection of Central and Robberson), it overpowered the sheriff and his deputies and they could not prevent them from breaking in. Estimates of the mob’s size are anywhere from 400 to 4,000 people. Duncan and Coker were then marched down Booneville to the Park Central Square and hung from the Gottfried tower. The Gottfried tower was a large iron structure that used to stand in the center of the square to support the street car wires. Ironically, on top of that tower was a replica of the Statue of Liberty. “Then they went back to the jail and broke out a third African-American young man and did the same to him.” Sellars said.
Will Allen was being held at the jail as a suspect in a murder case, and he was the third victim of the 1906 lynch mob.
“And not only were they hanged but they were also set on fire.” That was Father Moses Berry. He runs the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum in Ash Grove. “They were burned after they were hanged and then their body parts were actually distributed among those who were more sadistic as sorts of mementos of the lynching that took place. In my opinion it was an act of domestic terrorism.”
The following day, Easter Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Governor of Missouri was offering a $300 reward for evidence against the perpetrators of the lynching. Later, 18 men were indicted for the lynchings but there were no convictions. By Sunday evening, National Guard troops were headed into Springfield to prevent further violence. Berry says that the damage to the community had already been done.
“As a result of that terroristic act of hanging people in a public place, people became so frightened that they left Springfield in droves.”
Almost overnight the African-American population of Springfield dropped from about 20 percent to 2 percent.
“And after having left Springfield they didn’t re-populate even unto this very day, a town with over 100,000 people with less than 4 percent population.” Berry said.
Wes Pratt is the Coordinator for the Diversity Outreach and Recruitment program at Missouri State University in Springfield. He says that in order to escape hate and the threat of violence many black citizens had to leave everything behind, crippling the African-American community of Springfield. He says “The ramifications, the repercussions of it still exist today. You basically destroyed an economic base for a community. You basically shattered hopes and dreams of many who had viable businesses. There were professionals here and we haven’t been able to overcome that in over 100 years, and that’s a sad commentary.”
While the trauma of the past has taken its toll on the community, there has been a push in recent years to encourage more diversity in work and educational environments by programs such as the Diversity Outreach and Recruitment department at Missouri State.
“If I didn’t believe in Springfield I wouldn’t be here. And I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to be here or my children to come here and live. There is a tremendous opportunity in Springfield but, in part, we’ve got to deal with what happened and understand it and make sure it never happens again.” Pratt says.
I’ve come down to Park Central Square and I’m standing at the spot where Horace Duncan, Fred Coker and Will Allen were murdered a hundred years ago. Pratt says that while it may be painful to remember and re-tell the story of the lynching, it is essential to understanding why Springfield is the way it is. Neglecting to discuss it allows people to separate themselves from their own history and lets them forget the horrors humans are capable of.For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson