Historical marker of 1906 lynchings dedicated at Park Central Square
Park Central Square looks quite a bit different than it did in 1906 when a tower in the middle of the square was used to kill three black men by an angry mob who pulled them out of jail for their own vigilante justice.
"In my opinion it's the most heinous event ever to happen in the city of Springfield," said John Sellars, the Executive Director of Springfield's History Museum on the Square.
A sizeable crowd (but much smaller than the thousands of men, women and children who turned out 113 years ago) gathered on Wednesday morning to remember that horrific occasion.
But they were also on hand to help dedicate an historical marker on the square that describes how Horace Duncan and Fred Coker had been arrested for rape, set free, then re-arrested, kidnapped from jail, and lynched without a trial.
The mob then returned to the jail and brought back William Allen, who had no connection to Duncan and Coker, and hung him on the tower as well.
"(It took place) beneath of all things, a replica of the Statue of Liberty," pointed out Dr. Lyle Foster, an Associate Professor at Missouri State's Department of Sociology. "Their bodies were burned and fragments of their remains were gathered for souvenirs and heirlooms. In fact postcards were actually made to commemorate the event and send to relatives in other parts of our country. Crowds walked by on their way to Easter Sunday services the following morning."
The Springfield lynchings made national news but was soon knocked out of the public consciousness by the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake that occurred the same weekend.
But Springfield's 15 percent African-American population shrank below 1 percent as the once-thriving minority businesses disappeared.
"The Hardrick Brothers had the biggest grocery store in Springfield," Sellars said in recalling some of the well-known African-American leaders in town before the lynching. "Joe Armstrong was one of the first African-American police officers. The second automobile ever in the city of Springfield, actually built here, was built by Walter Majors, an African-American who drove across the square in 1900 at the breakneck speed of seven miles-an-hour."
70 year-old Wes Pratt, now the Chief Diversity Officer at Missouri State who spoke at the event grew up during the racially charged 1960's and still sees prejudice rearing its head from Charlottesville, Virginia to Springfield Kickapoo High School.
"Until we develop that social consciousness and awareness and we start to value what every single person brings to our communities, we're going to be missing a little bit," he said.
Helping develop that social consciousness was the purpose of Wednesday's event.
While some may want to forget or leave the lynchings in the past, others hope the marker commemorating it leads to reconciliation and healing.
"When I come to this square I sense, feel and emote what took place here," said an emotional Foster to the crowd. "I grieve for our community for what we could have been if these three young men had lived to make their full contributions. I grieve for each one of us for what we could have been as a city if the diversity, richness and potential of those who left and the reputation of our city had not become what it was for decades. So this is a difficult moment."
"The fact that we are here today represents a moment in Springfield's history but also our national history," explained Gabrielle Daniels, a representative from the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. "It is somewhat rare in that there are so many communities across our nation that have documented cases of lynching and do not have a social memory of those lynchings."
"According to the Tuskegee Institute 3,444 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1963," said Springfield Mayor Ken McClure in addressing the crowd. "Now, so many years later, the burden is still ours."