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Putting headstone on lynching victim's grave provides chance for closure

Monday, October 4, 2010 | 11:15 p.m. CDT; updated 12:47 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Reverend Clyde Ruffin from the Second Baptist Church in Columbia talks to the city council about upcoming events to raise money for the James T. Scott headstone on Monday, October 4. The first event, on November 7, will feature Missouri S&T Professor Patrick Huber as the keynote speaker who will share the story of Scott's lynching in 1928. Many organizations who have endorsed the memorial will also make their financial contributions at the November 7 fundraiser.

COLUMBIA — The Rev. Clyde Ruffin didn't go to the Columbia Cemetery last spring to visit James Scott's grave.

The pastor of the Second Missionary Baptist Church went to visit the graves of J.W. "Blind" Boone, a popular ragtime musician, and his manager, John Lange Jr., after a performance about Boone at his church.

Endorsements

As of Sept. 28, the following groups endorsed the James T. Scott Monument Committee's initiative:

  • Second Missionary Baptist Church
  • City of Columbia, Office of the Mayor
  • The family of Regina Almstedt
  • City of Columbia Division of Human Services
  • Columbia Cemetery Association
  • Columbia Special Business District
  • Columbia Daily Tribune
  • Missouri School of Journalism
  • University of Missouri Black Law Students Association
  • The Minority Men's Network
  • The State Historical Society of Missouri
  • Boone County Historical Society
  • Human Rights Task Force, Missouri Association for Social Welfare
  • The Missouri Commission On Human Rights
  • State of Missouri NAACP
  • Disabled American Veterans
  • Gaines Oldham Black Culture Center
  • H.T. May and Son Funeral Homes
  • American Civil Liberties Union

Donations can be made to the James T. Scott Monument Fund in person at the Boone County National Bank or mailed to P.O. Box 593, Columbia, MO 65205.


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But Scott was on his mind. Knowing he was buried nearby, Ruffin walked over to pay respect to the lynching victim who once belonged to his church. Scott was arrested after a white girl was assaulted by a black man as she walked to a music lesson in 1923. A mob broke into Scott's jail cell and hanged him before he could be tried.

Ruffin was shocked to see there was no headstone.

“It struck me as sad — once you know the circumstances of his death — to see he was just buried and forgotten,” Ruffin said.

Scott’s grave marker is almost lost amidst the sparse headstones that make up a section of Columbia Cemetery where mostly blacks were buried. The grave is marked with a small concrete slab made by a former cemetery superintendent.

It was then a mission became clear to Ruffin: Buy Scott a headstone. But he didn't want to do it alone.

“I just really feel — within that place where we feel things — that this should not be done quietly,” Ruffin said.

Scott was on Ruffin's mind last spring because he was studying the early 20th-century history of Columbia with the State Historical Society of Missouri's Christine Montgomery to improve the record-keeping of his church.

Ruffin stumbled upon a 1922 article in which Jonathan Lyle Caston, a former pastor at Second Missionary Baptist, spoke to the St. Louis Argus, a black press newspaper, about fundraising plans for a building behind the church at Fourth Street and Broadway. The project would include classrooms, a community center and kitchenettes for travelers.

But it was never built.

Instead, Caston left Second Baptist in 1923, according to church records. He served several other churches before going to Los Angeles in 1936 to lead the Trinity Baptist Church for 26 years.

Caston's departure from the church was the same year a Columbia mob of 1,000 lynched Scott, a member of his congregation, on a bridge near Stewart Road.

Ruffin said it's difficult to separate the lynching and Caston's decision to leave Columbia, especially since the pastor seemed so enthusiastic about building the church addition.

"It seemed obvious that the circumstances surrounding the lynching made him leave," Ruffin said.

Ruffin waited until July to present his idea to the Second Missionary Baptist Church, and it was endorsed by the congregation. Ruffin said he knew the church could have taken on the project independently, but he saw an opportunity for the community to embrace dignity, find closure and move past a racial divide.

Ruffin contacted several community groups to see if they’d be willing to endorse his project. He also looked for volunteers to form a committee to raise money for the headstone.

The James T. Scott Monument Committee met for the first time Sept. 14. Some of the committee members already had ties to Scott, including Doug Hunt and Scott Wilson.

Hunt is the author of "Summary Justice: The Lynching of James Scott and the Trial of George Barkwell", a short book detailing the Scott lynching and the trial of the man accused and acquitted of lynching him. Wilson, an independent producer for Columbia Access Television, is trying to get the words “Committed Rape” removed from Scott’s death certificate.

Hunt said other committee members were volunteers from the Second Missionary Baptist Church or interested members of the community who had heard about Scott and wanted to learn more.

"There were lots of people who heard about this episode — almost in whispers," Hunt said.

Columbia Cemetery Superintendent Tanja Patton said while the occasional teacher or class visits Scott's grave, she has received more calls about Scott in the past year and a half than ever before.

Ruffin said the committee wants the front of the monument to include words describing Scott's life, including his role as a father, husband and citizen. Hunt is working on drafts for statements to be etched on the back: one about Scott's death and another statement summing up Columbia's desire for peace. These statements will be approved by the committee.

The cost of the monument will depend on donations, Ruffin said. He said it was also decided at the Sept. 14 meeting that the focus of the committee would not be on Scott’s guilt or innocence, but the injustice surrounding his death.

“We can agree that he did not receive equal justice under the law,” Ruffin said.

At Monday's City Council meeting, Ruffin spoke about the Scott lynching and the formation of the committee. He informed council members of the committee's plans for a Nov. 7 event to be held at the Second Missionary Baptist Church and asked them to support the initiative. McDavid later moved, and gained approval, to allot up to $500 to the James T. Scott Monument Committee for work on the headstone.

At the Nov. 7 event, Patrick Huber, the author of "The Lynching of James T. Scott: The Underside of A College Town," will be the keynote speaker and the Lincoln University Choir and String Ensemble and dancer Candace Ingram will perform. The event is free, but donations will be welcomed.

Ruffin said he feels the community has been given a unique opportunity to come together. Hunt agreed with Ruffin's sentiment.

"What I really think is happening is a lot of people who have been interested in James Scott for a long time are converging at the same time," Hunt said.

As of Sept. 28, several community organizations and individuals endorsed the project, including the family of Regina Almstedt, the girl who was assaulted in 1923.

Hunt had communicated with Almstedt's two sons, who live in St. Louis, as research for his book in 2004, and he made sure to inform them of the committee's plans. The family supports the project and wants to make a donation. A niece hopes to attend the headstone ceremony in April, Hunt said.

While Ruffin wants the April ceremony to be celebrated, he believes that the November event at his church should be a time of reflection.

"James Scott was a person," Ruffin said. "His life should not be defined by his death."


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Comments

Rachel Brekhus October 5, 2010 | 11:01 a.m.

Good to see this happening. Memorials are important, both for the good and the bad events of our local history.

In this spirit, I have started a Google maps with placemarks for key places in Columbia's African-American history. For each placemark I'm adding links and references to available publications, and photos of the places.
Collaborators are welcome.

Here's the link to this map: http://bit.ly/c2beDm

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