Hundreds of Springfield residents gathered on the downtown square to see the unveiling of a marker about the 1906 lynching of three black men.
The marker tells of the murders of Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and Will Allen by a mob of white residents. The men were taken from the nearby jail and hung from a tower in the square before their bodies were burnt to ash. The men had been falsely accused of crimes and were jailed despite evidence showing their innocence.
“Please know that today, history is being made in the Ozarks!” H. Wes Pratt, Missouri State Chief Diversity Officer, told the assembled residents as he opened the ceremony. Pratt went on to give the audience a brief history of slavery in Missouri and the impact on the area. (The entire text of Pratt’s statement is printed below this story.)
Pratt was among a group of speakers that included Springfield Mayor Ken McClure, Faith Tabernacle Bishop Jones Foote, and local businessman and Missouri State Assistant Professor Lyle Foster.
Foster spoke to the crowd about the incident involving Duncan, Coker, and Allen. He shared information about the event that is not commonly shared with the public about the event that happened on Easter weekend 1906. In one of the examples, Foster told the crowd that citizens had taken fragments of bones left over after the bodies were burned and used them to make heirlooms or just kept them as souvenirs. Residents made postcards about the killings and sent them to relatives around the United States.
“Crowds walked by on their way to Easter Sunday services the following morning,” Foster said, “To spectate and celebrate what I call a tragic aftermath.”
Foster, along with several other speakers, noted that the men were hung from a tower that at the top had a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
“I have heard from many in Springfield that our public square has often been a reminder of what took place here and the tragedy for some still reverberates,” Foster said. “Overall I was struck by the sadness of these young men who never got to experience most of their lives, most of their potential of what they could be. But we know this: the arc of the moral universe is long, but thank God that it bends toward justice.”
The marker is located on the southwest corner of the square. One side of the marker tells the story of Duncan, Coker, and Allen. The other side discusses the history of slavery in Missouri.
“I think it’s a tremendous tribute to the city of Springfield and members of the [Community Remembrance] Coalition,” Wes Pratt told OI. “It’s been a long time coming to acknowledge our history and to build on that moving forward. I think that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re wanting to never forget, we can forgive, but we need to reconcile and build on a more inclusive and just community.”
The event was attended by a large number of local, regional and state elected officials.
“The turnout is amazing,” Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade told OI. “Very excited the city is moving forward with this dedication. We need to embrace our history and celebrate the improvements we’ve made over time.”
“This is a very momentous event we’re holding today,” Mayor Ken McClure said. “It recognizes a very unflattering part of our city’s history and so by coming to grips with that I think it helps us acknowledge the negative things that happened in the past and strengthens our resolve to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
“It’s overdue,” Councilman Andrew Lear told OI. “I’m really happy that we’re recognizing it and we need to face our past in order to move to the future.”
Here is the segment of Wes Pratt’s speech documenting the history of slavery and black residents of Springfield:
Therefore, let me provide you a relatively brief history of Springfield, Greene County and Missouri in these United States of America and set the stage for what occurred on this site on an Easter weekend in 1906:
• We did not know that this “farm-oriented town”, as the late Professor Katheryn Lederer described it, had thriving black businesses and residences in mid-town and south Springfield.
• Settlers entering Greene County in late 1820’s and early 1830’s would have found blacks already here living with the native American Indigenous people (Indians);
• The majority of Greene County blacks were slaves brought by settlers from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky;
o John Looney slave owner from Kentucky– John Looney one of the earliest pioneers in Greene County; Willard, MO. Brought slaves who are the ancestors of my children. His gravesite along with the slaves graves he owned was designated as historical site in 2010.
• Missouri was legislated as a slave state “in an effort to preserve the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states by the Missouri Compromise passed in 1820. Missouri was a slave state and Maine admitted as a free state. At the time, Missouri requested ‘slave state status’ because at the time the U.S. contained 22 states, evenly divided between slave and free.
• A law passed in the 1840’s required free blacks to post bond and get permits to remain in Greene County “during good behavior and no longer”;
• Dred Scott, a 1857 USSC decision ruled that a slave (Dred Scott) who had resided in a free state and territory (where slavery prohibited) was not thereby entitled to his freedom; that AAs were not and could never be citizens of the U.S. and that “Blacks had no rights that white man need respect” (pushed country closer to civil war);
• Civil War 1861 to 1865 and the black population dropped sharply during the Civil War as many local owners “ran to Texas” with their slaves in an effort to preserve their property investment. Hundreds of southwest Missouri slaves freed themselves by leaving for Kansas where male slaves often enlisted in the Union Army and then returned to settle in the Ozarks. Some slave owners provided slaves for enlistment.
• If you have recently seen or heard about the Milly Sawyers Project researched and developed by local area students you would know that Milly Sawyers was a female slave who sued for her freedom 3 times in a freedom lawsuit. She won in a Springfield court before the Emancipation Proclamation freed most slaves (but was beaten by city leaders for whom Campbell street and Roundtree School are named).
• The Emancipation Proclamation (and Executive Order) 1863 applied in 10 states still in rebellion in 1863 but did not cover the nearly 500,000 slaves in slave holding border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland or Delaware)
• Juneteenth (aka Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day) is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in U.S. June 19, 1865 was day Union soldiers & General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, TX with news war ended and enslaved were freed.
• Our local Park Day celebration, first weekend in August, commemorates when AA first learned of their freedom on 8/4/1865 nearly 8 months after Missouri issued a proclamation freeing slaves. [Started in 1952 when organized by Gerald Brooks, LHS teacher and Robert Wendell Duncan, Silver Springs Park Supervisor.]
• Many blacks came to Springfield and neighboring towns after the Civil War including Marshfield, Hartville, Lebanon, Cave Springs, Pierce City (became all white after race riot)
• After Reconstruction in early 1900’s Springfield 15-20% Black population also consisted of: doctors, lawyers, elected officials, businesspersons, some of the largest landowners.
• During the year that the Normal Teachers School was established in 1905-1906 ((that became our current MSU) “a triple lynching on Easter weekend changed the course of Springfield’s history and ended the natural development of a black community with a strong and prosperous middle class.”
• An estimated 10%-20% black population;
• Elected black city councilmen;
• A black county coroner;
• black undertakers (Marshall, S.A. Greene Campbell (federal mail clerk) & son Wendell; last mortician was Herbert Smith son of Will Smith, Springfield’s only black postman until 1980’s)
• Two black dentists;
• Two black doctors;
• Two black lawyers;
• A blacksmith;
• Black school board members;
• A black weekly newspaper;
• Largest supermarket owned by Hardwicks patronized by blacks and whites;
• Largest landowner owned from National to Cherry to Glenstone to Grand;
• Largest hauling business owned by black man who helped deliver materials to construct city of Rolla.