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Community celebrates life of lynching victim James T. Scott

Saturday, April 30, 2011 | 7:25 p.m. CDT; updated 11:37 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Hundreds of Columbia residents gathered to remember James T. Scott and reflect on race relations past and present. Scott was lynched by a mob in 1923.

Correction: Stewart Road is south of Broadway. An early version of this article cited an incorrect direction.

COLUMBIA — The ones who remembered the lynching did not speak of it. They carried the memories for years — through marriages and children and careers and death.

Their children and grandchildren knew little or nothing of the Columbia lynching their family members witnessed. In 1923, a mob of hundreds broke James T. Scott, who was accused of raping 14-year-old Regina Almstedt, out of jail and marched him down to Stewart Road to be lynched.

Columbia shares thoughts abou James Scott memorial

Missourian reporters talked to many members of the community to learn why the James T. Scott Monument Dedication was important to them.

John Ward of Columbia learned about the memorial celebration of Scott two weeks ago during Bible study at the Second Missionary Baptist Church. He held his Bible close to his chest as he walked with the procession to the Columbia Cemetery. He said he thought it would be nice to attend the event and be a part of the celebration.

“Some people will listen, some will not,” he said.

Joyce Hatton was at the memorial with her daughter and grandson and thought the celebration was a good way to bring the community together. Originally from St. Louis, Hatton has lived in Columbia for 37 years.

"It's a good way to right a wrong," Hatton said.

MU graduate student Elyse Cagle missed the memorial at the church but joined the procession to the Columbia Cemetery to be a part of history. She first heard of the lynching in 2006 through the MU Black Cultural Center.

“I feel it is a big thing, an important part of history,” she said. “I hope we see more unity in the community.”

Joyce Randle is a member of the Second Missionary Baptist Church.

“Reconciliation is the number one goal here," Randle said. "It’s a new day, and hopefully the difficulties regarding race can be diminished in our community. It was a wrong that was never righted, and now is the moment to do so.”

Laura Wells lives near Columbia Cemetery. She said the event was important because many in the community don't know about it.

"I've always been interested in the story," Wells said. "I don't know if it will change anything, but people need to remember."


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On Saturday, his life was celebrated by hundreds of members of the community who came out for the James T. Scott Monument Dedication, which was made possible through the efforts of a committee that has worked to honor Scott's life with a memorial tombstone in Columbia. Scott's grave was originally unmarked, but several years ago a past superintendent of the cemetery placed a small concrete slab on the place he was thought to rest.

Extra chairs were set up on the edge of pews as Second Missionary Baptist Church quickly became standing-room only in the minutes before the event began.

Present at the ceremony were family members of three former Columbia citizens who played key roles in trying to stop the lynching or provide justice for Scott.

The minister who had immediately formed a plan to saves Scott's life, Jonathan Lyle Caston, spoke little of the lynching that took the life of an active member of his Second Missionary Baptist congregation in 1923.

His grandchildren knew the lynching played a role in the Castons leaving Columbia in 1925, but they knew not of their grandfather's efforts to save Scott's life until the James T. Scott Monument Committee contacted them last year, Caston's granddaughter Sharon Chapman said.

The Missourian journalist who covered the lynching and testified against George Barkwell, the only man tried for the lynching of Scott, would not tell his sons about the experience that began an impressive career. But Charles Nutter's son said he wasn't surprised to learn of his father's role in the lynching — his father had always had an "impatience for injustice."

James Nutter learned about the story only a month ago when committee member Douglas Hunt put up a notice on Facebook. The committee was searching for relatives and descendants of the people who made attempts to stop the mob. Hunt sent Nutter his book "A Course in Applied Lynching." Nutter said he read it in two days.

“I was overwhelmed, frankly,” Nutter said. “I felt pride and humility.”

Hermann Almstedt confronted that angry Columbia crowd and unsuccessfully pleaded for the life of the man accused of raping his daughter. The incident was never spoke of by Almstedt or his daughter Regina. Almstedt's grandchildren learned of their grandfather's attempts for justice when contacted by Missourian reporter Barton Grover Howe for his 2003 series, Legacy of a Lynching.

"His sense of wrong and right was both strong and immutable," Almstedt's granddaughter Pat Roberts said of her grandfather. "He would see this as a wrong being righted."

Tributes were given to Nutter, Caston and Almstedt at the memorial celebration. Patrick Huber, a Missouri University of Science and Technology professor who has researched and written much about Scott, spoke of the life of the man that many hope is not defined by his death.

Janna Stewart of Alaska attended the ceremony to represent her father, who had been brought to the lynching as a 4-year-old.

The story was always quietly told within the family. Stewart’s father, Joseph Stewart, was never comfortable discussing the event he witnessed as a boy.

Janna Stewart learned about the lynching in 1997 when reading a brief note carefully written in the autobiography her father left when he died.

“It was only a few paragraphs, and I didn’t know if it was accurate,” Stewart said. “I was wondering if my father was making things up or just carrying a family story that will just be myths.”

She did some research and came across Huber's thesis and put things together. Janna Stewart's father was brought to the lynching by his father, who wanted to show him “how to deal with color.”

“My father took a different path,” she said. “He tried not to become what his father wanted him to be.”

Janna Stewart and her brother were present at the James T. Scott benefit program, held by the monument committee to raise money for Scott's tombstone. The Stewarts gave a donation on behalf of their family. Her father's handwritten autobiography will be donated to the State Historical Society of Missouri.

“We are not here as descendants of heroes or victims of the story,” she said. “Rather, we are here because we are willing to admit our family’s participation in this tragedy.”

After the church service ended, a procession marched down Broadway to the monument dedication at Columbia Cemetery.

And unlike the crazed, angry crowd that marched down Broadway 88 years ago — a crowd that few living remember, but many have written of — this crowd was permeated with excitement, pride and hope.

Among the crowd was Meagan Hill, a 16-year-old from Columbia, who read about the lynching this week in a magazine article and said her mother invited her to attend the memorial event.

Before this week, Hill had never heard of the Scott lynching and doesn't remember learning about it in school.

"I was wondering what else I didn't know," Hill said. "Why wouldn't they teach that in our own city?"

Hill brought her friend David Krusemark, also of Columbia, who heard of the lynching for the first time at the ceremony. The 17-year-old was shocked that more people hadn't tried to stop it.

"To hear about a lynching so close to home and in the 1920s — I wouldn't have thought that would have happened," Krusemark said.

At the cemetery, the community formed a thick circle around the new tombstone as the Rev. Clyde Ruffin, who formed the committee in September, led a prayer in honor of Scott before the Missouri Military Honors Unit of Jefferson City performed a gun salute.

The crowd that turned out for the event exceeded his expectations.

"It feels great — I don't know what to say," Ruffin said. "It's more than I imagined."

The tombstone came from India and was picked because of its special stone — it looks grey in the day and blue in the evening, Barbra Horrell, co-chair of the committee, said.

The remaining funds from the November benefit program were used to mark the graves of those in the community who had lived and died as slaves.

“The money has all been used,” Horrell said. “We decided to mark the other slaves' graves with the rest.”

There are no photographs of Scott. His presence was symbolized at the memorial ceremony by a picture of Broadway facing south* to Stewart Road where he was killed. The picture was accompanied by his signature, taken from a marriage license.

Many have tried to find existing members of Scott's family but have been unsuccessful, Roberts said.

 “I regret there are no descendants of James T. Scott here today," Nutter said. "I wish that someday they will get the chance to see that people came up to talk about this.”


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Comments

Leslie Kriete April 30, 2011 | 8:23 p.m.

Why was a band from Hazelwood High School brought in to play instead of a band from Columbia?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 1, 2011 | 5:14 a.m.

"Why was a band from Hazelwood High brought in to play instead of a band from Columbia?"

There could be a number of reasons, including the fact that the "known world" doesn't begin and end with the city limits of Columbia - or the borders of MU's campus, for that matter. If the latter situation were true, University of Missouri System would have LESS THAN HALF the students it presently claims to have.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks May 1, 2011 | 3:41 p.m.

Probably the same reason the State of Missouri hires companies from other states to clean the Capital and other govt buildings. There is not sense of pride or commitment to those in the area.

Or

Hazelwood is a predominately black school and someone thought it would be a nice gesture to ask them.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz May 1, 2011 | 10:16 p.m.

My SWAG is that the band from Hazelwood has experience playing a New Orleans-style funeral procession, which I believe was to be part of Saturday's walk to the cemetery.

(Report Comment)

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