COLUMBIA — The James T. Scott story, Columbia's symbol of racial division since his lynching by a mob in 1923, takes on new meaning Saturday during a celebration of his life that organizers hope will help heal the scars of 88 years ago.
The Rev. Clyde Ruffin and others involved in the James T. Scott Monument Committee have been working for months to give Scott a voice by organizing the celebration.
The memorial celebration that begins at noon in Second Missionary Church will be followed by a processional march up the hill to Columbia Cemetery for the unveiling of a new headstone marking Scott's grave and a reception in the Daniel Boone City Building.
A week after Scott's arrest for allegedly sexually assaulting the 14-year-old daughter of MU German professor Hermann Almstedt, a mob forcibly removed the door from his cell in the Boone County Jail and marched him to a bridge near Stewart and Providence roads. A rope was placed around Scott's neck, and he was hanged from the bridge before a hundreds of people without any opportunity to plead his case in court.
“It’s sad. It’s almost like he had no voice,” said Ruffin, the pastor at Second Baptist Church. “He was silenced … and forgotten about for 88 years.”
Organizers don't intend to “funeralize” Scott, Ruffin said.
“We’re just trying to say, you know, this is a man that lived, and he never got a chance to tell his story," he said.
The processional, set to begin at 1 p.m., will go up the hill to Scott's grave at Columbia Cemetery for the unveiling of a headstone engraved with the names of Scott, his wife, Gertrude Carter, and parents to document the family's genealogy.
On the back, a paragraph will state how Scott died, as well as a message on behalf of Columbia residents that “reaffirms our pledge to live in peace,” Ruffin said.
Scott Wilson, a local producer and videographer, first learned about the lynching last year from the State Historical Society of Missouri. He spearheaded an effort that corrected Scott's death certificate to strike the words "committed rape," to note he was never tried or convicted of the crime and list his cause of death as "lynching by assailants."
Historians including Doug Hunt, associate emeritus professor of English at MU, have done extensive research on Scott and the lynching.
Hunt makes a case for Scott's innocence on his blog: The rape occurred about 3:15 p.m. on April 20, and people at the Medical School said they saw Scott between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. that day.
Hunt's research also points to another possible suspect: Ollie Watson, a black man accused of raping two high school girls a week before Regina Almstedt was assaulted.
When Regina described her assailant as black, around 30 years old and with a Charlie Chaplin mustache, Scott was arrested. Hunt said that Watson, who was still at large, also had a Charlie Chaplin mustache but had shaved it when the police released the description.
Watson was later arrested, put into Boone County Jail and shared a cell with James Scott, who told the mob on the bridge that Watson had raped the Almstedt girl and confessed to it in the cell they shared.
Hunt is intrigued by the evidence in the rape of Regina and whether Scott would have been tried fairly had the lynch mob not intervened.
Hunt sees Saturday's events as an opportunity for the community to find some closure regarding the infamous event in 1923 that attracted national attention.
“We don’t have to believe he was innocent to understand that the behavior of hundreds of Boone County citizens that night was barbaric,” Hunt said.
Ruffin, too, thinks the celebration has purpose for both Scott and the community at large.
“I found out that there is a lot of healing that needs to take place because there is so much shame attached to his lynching,” he said.