Columbia man works to change death certificate of lynching victim

The grave of James T. Scott

COLUMBIA — He visits Columbia Cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of a man he’s never known. He knows it’s a humble gesture — the flowers. Still, he continues his new personal ritual for a man he believes has suffered a great injustice.

"It's a moment of quiet reflection," said Scott Wilson, an independent producer for Columbia Access Television. "Being there you get some strength from feeling like you are doing the right thing, though it's a small thing."

There is no headstone at the grave. Wilson pays respect to a tiny concrete marker barely visible from the cemetery path that reads simply James T. Scott, 1887-1923.

Scott, who was black, was taken from the Boone County Jail in 1923 and lynched by a mob after being accused by a white girl of sexual assault.

Originally, Wilson, a white man, became interested in the Scott lynching as an idea for a documentary, a chance to film in narrative style.

But Wilson’s documentary dreams have changed. It’s not about the film anymore. It’s not about himself. It’s about two little words that stuck out to him like an ugly neon light the first time he read Scott’s death certificate.

"Committed Rape." It's written in sloppy cursive as a secondary reason for death; the first being a lynch mob. It’s a crime Scott was killed for but not convicted of.

style="margin-left: 0in; text-indent: 0in;">“You want to find something to do,” Wilson said. “And there are two things I can do — I can get these words struck, and I can put flowers on the man’s grave.”

Facing Scott’s grave, Wilson can look across the cemetery to the grave of George Barkwell, the man accused and acquitted of lynching Scott. Behind him is the site of the lynching, near the intersection of Stewart Road and Providence Road, where a bridge once crossed a deep ravine that was once a part of Flat Branch creek.

The lynching was a community event attended by more than 1,000 people, according to Douglas Hunt, a retired MU English professor who wrote a 2004 essay on Scott published in the Missouri Review titled "A Course in Applied Lynching." W.E.B. DuBois, a black civil rights activist, would later criticize the community and MU.

"We are glad to note that the University of Missouri has opened a course in Applied Lynching," DuBois wrote in an editorial. "Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it in detail."

For Wilson, striking the two words from Scott's death certificate is an opportunity for a community to atone for a denial of due process.

"As a community we need to say this is not right," Wilson said. "This is something legally tangible that can go a long way."

Scott, a janitor for MU who was decorated for valor in World War I, was arrested and accused of raping Regina Almstedt, a 14-year-old white girl, as she walked to a music lesson. On April 28, 1923, a mob of hundreds broke into his jail cell, where he awaited trial, and dragged him to Stewart Bridge. They lynched him – despite his pleas of innocence, efforts by the victim’s father to stop them and law enforcement's uncertainty they had the right man.

Wilson heard Scott’s name mentioned in May while shooting a State Historical Society of Missouri History in Performance Theatre radio play at the Second Baptist Church. He had heard it before, in another play he shot for CAT.

Originally, he was intrigued by the idea of doing a documentary on the subject. He contacted Bill Stolz at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at MU, who set him up with Hunt, the retired MU English professor.

Hunt summed up the relations between black and whites in 1923 Columbia in an excerpt from his Missouri Review essay:

“To buy liquor, you went to a bootlegger. If you were black, you stepped off the sidewalk when whites approached, and if you were male, you removed your hat. ... In theory, blacks and women could hold public office and serve on juries, but in practice they didn’t. A small set of prosperous white men dominated public life and most others bore this dominance meekly.”

Wilson was inspired by the story, which highlights the shaky evidence used to condemn Scott and explores the circumstances surrounding Barkwell’s trial. Testimony by three Missourian reporters implicated Barkwell as leading the mob and pushing Scott off the bridge; several prominent Columbia men said Barkwell watched the lynching elsewhere.

“There is no doubt that somebody committed perjury in that trial,” Hunt said.

Hunt, who wrote his short book after 18 months of research, said it means a great deal to him that Wilson was inspired by his story.

“I had no way of knowing there would be any really good consequences of working on this story,” Hunt said. "Seeing people interested and providing the research to back things up has been wonderful."

It wasn't until Christine Montgomery of the State Historical Society showed Wilson the death certificate that Wilson put his documentary plans on hold to work on striking the words listed on the certificate as the secondary cause of death.

Wilson shared the story with friend and lawyer, Gary Stamper, who offered to help pro bono. Carl Stacy, chief medical examiner for Boone and Callaway counties, and Associate Medical Examiner Michael Panella have also expressed interest. When Wilson returns from vacation on Sept. 19, the group plans to sit down to decide on a course of action.

style="margin-bottom: 16pt;">“A death certificate may be changed when additional information is obtained that would greatly impact the cause and manner of death,” Panella said in an e-mail.

style="margin-bottom: 16pt;">Panella said the group wants to change the certificate without going to court. Because Scott died in Boone County, the medical examiner can legally change the document and send it to the state. There is no guarantee the change will be accepted if the state feels there is not clear terminology or sufficient documentation to justify the change.

style="margin-bottom: 16pt;">"Given the time interval, we were not aware of Mr. Scott's tragic death or the horrible circumstances," Panella said. "Consequently, we are attempting to change the death certificate in order to fairly and justly document the cause, manner and circumstances of James Scott's death."

style="margin-bottom: 16pt;">Panella also said it remains to be seen whether the length of time since Scott’s death will play a role in changing the death certificate.

style="margin-bottom: 16pt;">Wilson hopes the change can happen before the next anniversary of Scott's death in April.

style="margin-bottom: 16pt;">Like Scott, Wilson worked as a janitor at MU. For him, it was a way to pay the tuition bills during his undergraduate career. After college, Wilson* climbed telephone polls for a telephone company, which later led to a position at Verizon before he quit his job to pursue becoming a videographer.

style="margin-bottom: 16pt;">He now produces a CAT show called "Wilson Street," which highlights community events, including local music and public affairs in Columbia. Wilson* hopes his mission can bring the community together and serve as an educational tool about the importance of due process.

style="margin-left: 0in; text-indent: 0in;">“Ignorance prevailed that night with James Scott,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to see things get that close again.”

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