James T. Scott's lynching coverage reveals fracture

Thursday, April 28, 2011 | 9:28 p.m. CDT; updated 3:14 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 1, 2011

*CORRECTION: The Stewart Road Bridge from which James Scott was lynched crossed the MKT railroad tracks and Flat Branch Creek. An earlier version of this article misidentified the bridge.

COLUMBIA — Patrick Huber was a history major at MU in the late 1980s when he began researching a 1930 race riot in his hometown of Ste. Genevieve and ran across the story of James T. Scott's lynching in Columbia.

"I became fascinated because I had never heard about it before, and I was particularly intrigued by the allegations made by several national newspapers that MU students had participated in Scott's murder," Huber said.


This editorial by Tribune publisher Edward Watson appeared on Page 2 of the newspaper on April 28, 1923.


Columbia has the distinction of having in jail three rapists. The victims of all three have identified them and testified to their guilt. So there is no doubt of the justice of the claim of this town; the center of education and refinement in Missouri, of wearing the belt for heinous and revolting crimes. Other towns have had one super-criminal of this kind, but where is the city or town at one and the same time that can lay claim to three brutes who have been guilty of the most dastardly of all offenses against society? Even metropolitan cities must take a back seat for eminence of this kind and allow Columbia to fill the public eye. Columbia, a mere city of scarcely 10,000, is set upon a hill and shines as a beacon for crimes almost unconceivable committed within her confines. All others must be green with envy on account of our pre-eminence. Even Soviet Russia, with its saturnalia of lust and disregard of all tenets of civilization, should look to its laurels for horrible barbarity.

These brutes and super-criminals should be dealt swift justice – by the courts, of course. There can be no extenuation of their crimes. Murder and homicide can be committed under stress of anger or insult, but the rapist is guilty of premeditation, malice – in fact, every degrading and criminal act. A man killer is a mild-mannered and desirable citizen compared with a despoiler and ravisher of innocent girlhood. An attempt at the crime above-mentioned is just as heinous and culpable, as an accomplishment. This trio should feel the "halter draw" in vindication of the law.

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Huber's 1990 undergraduate thesis, "Town vs. Gown, the James T. Scott Lynching and the Social Fracture between the University of Missouri and the Larger Columbia Community" gives a detailed analysis of the news coverage provided by the town's two newspapers in April 1923.

On April 23, The Columbia Evening Missourian reported on the police search for the suspected assailant of Regina Almstedt, the 14-year-old daughter of an MU German professor, who was sexually assaulted by a black male.

Scott, a black janitor at MU, was jailed for the crime.

On April 28, the day of the lynching, Tribune publisher Edward Watson wrote an editorial that commented on the rape.

"This editorial was rather sensational and suggested that Scott should be lynched, if you read behind the lines," Huber said. "The language employed by the Tribune included expressions like 'brutal attack' and references to 'impassioned beasts' in an earlier report to describe the suspects."

He thinks, in the very least, the editorial publicly sanctioned what the mob was about to do.

Less than five hours after the editorial hit the streets, a mob of white men broke into Scott's jail and dragged him to a bridge* that used to be located near Stewart and Providence roads. He was lynched in front of almost 2,000 people, including city residents and MU students, Huber said.

Huber found the Missourian coverage more objective.

"They complied more closely to modern standards of journalism," he said.

In his thesis, Huber explained how the coverage illustrates the historical town-gown tensions between the university and the larger community.

The story received a national coverage, Hubert said, primarily because it occurred in a college town.

The Chicago Daily Tribune ran a front page story with the headline "College town mob kill negro, Missouri 'U' students join in lynching." The front-page headline in The New York Times on April 30, 1923, read: "Missouri students see negro lynched."

Byron Scott, professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, analyzed the Missourian coverage and the role of journalism students Charles Nutter and Foster Hailey.

Nutter and Hailey were present when the mob broke into Scott's jail cell and dragged him to the bridge.

"The Missourian was reporting in a pretty hostile environment," Scott said.

The student journalists also testified at the trial of George Barkwell, a white businessman, indicted for the murder of Scott and acquitted by a jury after 11 minutes of deliberation.

Nutter and Hailey will be honored Saturday as part of a memorial celebration of Scott's life organized by the James T. Scott Monument Committee.

Scott said Nutter received several threats after his testimony at the Barkwell trial. Nutter was escorted by his classmates to the train station and left town.

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