James Scott, who was lynched in 1923 at the Stewart Bridge, is the subject of a thought-provoking new book by the late Patricia L. Roberts.
She wanted to write a biography of Scott but also aimed to “lift a cloud” she thought hung over her family and Columbia because of the unjust act.
For details of the actual lynching, Roberts relies heavily on MU English Professor Emeritus Doug Hunt’s “Summary Justice: The Lynching of James Scott and the Trial of George Barkwell.” She wanted to focus on who Scott was and what Columbia was like back then.
In 2003, Roberts learned from a Columbia Missourian article that her aunt, Regina Almstedt, was the 14-year-old girl who had been assaulted and raped near the MKT tracks by Stewart Road.
The young girl incorrectly named Scott on three occasions as her assailant in part because he had a Charlie Chaplin mustache.
In her book, “A Lynching in Little Dixie,” Roberts, who never lived in Columbia but visited her aunt in the summer and on holidays, concentrates almost entirely on Scott. She writes little about her aunt other than to say she apparently went on to live a happy and productive life without any more racial incidents.
George Barkwell, who threw Scott off the bridge, was charged with manslaughter but was quickly bailed out by community leaders. Barkwell was acquitted after the jury deliberated for just 11 minutes.
Another man was later convicted of the attack on Almstedt, so there is little doubt that Scott was innocent. Nevertheless, a mob broke into the jail at the Boone County Courthouse, marched Scott to the Stewart Bridge, tied a rope around his neck and threw him over the side.
Most amazingly, an estimated 1,000 people looked on. Only two — including Almstedt’s father — spoke up to try to prevent the mob murder of Scott.
Like many Columbians, I probably first became aware of the lynching in 2010-11, when members of the Second Missionary Baptist Church gathered a history of Scott, held several memorial events and provided an appropriate headstone for Scott’s grave,which had been unmarked.
In 2016, the Association of Black Graduate and Professional Students at MU placed a permanent plaque along the MKT trail near Stewart Bridge to commemorate his life and death.
Roberts presents an eye-opening history of the development of Columbia. Columbia looks like other college towns, e.g. Bloomington, Indiana, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, or Ames, Iowa, but it might be different.
One significant difference is Columbia’s history as a Civil War border state, and its history of slavery. Roberts recounts the patterns of slavery, housing and segregation after the Civil War until the 1930s.
Among the new history I learned is that ironically Judge John A. Stewart, after whom the bridge and road are named, was a friend of James Lang, Jr., an early financier of the Second Missionary Baptist Church, which was the center of black religious and cultural life.
The lynching would have been wrong even if Scott did not have a wife and two children, a job at the University of Missouri, a car (unusual for both blacks and whites in 1923) and service in the military in France during World War I. Scott was 35 years old and had only lived in Columbia for about three years.
Roberts carefully establishes that Scott was born in New Mexico and lived most of his life on the north side of Chicago, where he apparently avoided the city’s racial violence during the early 20th century.
Scott apparently lived a peaceful life in Columbia’s Stewart Road neighborhood. Perhaps one activity that may have earned him adverse white public attention was a lawsuit he had filed a year prior to his death to receive his rightful pay as a ride equipment operator at the Emancipation Day Fair.
Scott’s killing left a wife, two children, a mother, a job and the wealth accumulated in his automobile, which he had used to pay an attorney. Roberts reports that his wife, Gertrude, moved in with her parents and died in 1951 in Columbia.
A son, Carl, died in 1993 in Indiana. Scott’s family was robbed of his earning potential, as well as family security, due to his wrongful death. American law and public policy have not provided a solution to that injustice.
There were certainly outrageously irresponsible civic and government leaders who allowed Scott’s lynching to happen. For starters there was the editor of the Columbia Tribune, Edward Watson, who wrote: “There has been much talk of mob activity and many men of sound judgement who do not believe in mob law are of the opinion that if it is positively proven that the negro is the man who committed the crime the taxpayers should be saved any costs that might accrue from a trial and that summary justice should be dealt to him.”
Another is the sheriff, Fred Brown, who allowed the mob to congregate on the courthouse lawn and rush the county jail, taking Scott from his cell. Brown was tardy in calling for help from government officials, including the governor.
Roberts is not definitive about the role played by public and higher education prior to the lynching. The university would not graduate its first black student until 1950, and Missouri law required segregation in schools until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
One thousand people passively witnessed the lynching, and only two spoke up. How many citizens would it have taken to stop this summary injustice? I’ll bet not many.
I imagine if 10 more citizens with a conscience had spoken up, James Scott would have gone to trial. By then, passions may have cooled. Or maybe not.
Note: There will be a community discussion of Roberts’ and Hunt’s books at 7 p.m. June 17, in the Friends Room of the Columbia Public Library. The public is welcome.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and write his first column for the Missourian in 1994.