SPRINGFIELD, Mo- With the recent Black Lives Matter protests happening across the world, and here in Springfield, those living in the Queen City are reflecting on the way this community has treated African American citizens through the years.
Executive Director John Sellars of the History Museum on the Square gave Ozarks First a history lesson, Wednesday. One ranging from life after the Civil War, to the lynchings of 1906, to the social landscape of Springfield during the now-notorious Green Book era.
Sellars also shared some of this information this week on The Mystery Hour with Jeff Houghton.
Life after the Civil War
Sellars says after the Civil War, people of all races started settling down in Springfield because they saw it as a place of great opportunity.
“The railroad was coming; they knew it was going to be a center for travel and transportation. The African American community was provided some tremendous opportunity right after the war,” says Sellars.
He says a lot of African Americans became not just property owners, but also business owners. Sellars says it was an African American family that owned the largest grocery store at the time. Hardrick Brothers Grocery was owned by two African American brothers. Another name Sellars mentions is Lewis Tutt; another prominent property and business owner.
According to the Springfield Police Department, Tutt was the first person of color to become an SPD Officer. Tutt was the half brother of Davis Tutt, the man shot by famous outlaw Wild Bill Hickok on the square in the first gunfight recorded in 1865.
Another well-known name: Walter Majors.
“[Majors] built an automobile and drove it around the town,” Sellars said. “The community was doing great things. Then, after the lynchings in 1906, that all went away.”
The 1906 Lynchings
The same square where nearly 2,500 Black Lives Matter demonstrators gathered to voice change in 2020, is the same location where, over 100 years earlier, Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen, three incarcerated African Americans, were hung and set on fire by a 2,000-person lynch mob.
Sellars notes the downtown Springfield square has gone through several changes since that year. Today, a plaque on the current square honors Duncan, Coker, and Allen.
The three were accused of attacking a white man and woman in Springfield. Two of the men, Duncan and Coker, worked together, and their boss, who was white, vouched for them.
But before the lynching in Springfield, a lynching was held in Joplin. Around that same time, people in Pierce City set fire to the homes of their neighboring African Americans.
“In each one of these, nothing was ever proved. Nobody ever went to trial. There was a lot of hearsay and innuendo. The one in Springfield, it was absolutely proven that these young men could not have been involved,” says Sellars.
“They were down here at the Baldwin Theater on St. Louis Street loading theater sets onto a wagon to be hauled to another city,” says Sellars.
Sellars says Allen was in jail for another charge and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The men were hung on a tower called the Gottfried Tower. According to the Springfield-Greene County Library, the tower was placed in 1895 and was removed in 1909, three years after the lynching, by the Springfield Fire Department. The department used it for training purposes until it became unsafe.
Sellars says, along with being a modern electrical engineering marvel, the tower served as a symbol of patriotism for Springfield.
“It had a Statute of Liberty on top of it, had a bandstand 12 feet up in the air. It was a very modern piece of metal sculpture that was decorative and also functional, and it was used in such a horrible manner,” says Sellars.
He says several people left Springfield and went to Kansas City or St. Louis after the lynching.
“It was then destroyed. The Statue of Liberty became a garden ornament at the home of Charles Callis of Springfield. It was later broken into pieces and used to fill a fishpond,” according to the library website.
The Green Book and Springfield
Several years later, Springfield grew. Growing along with it was Route 66.
Back in those early days of the Mother Road, Sellars says, those who were African American travelers were only allowed to visit certain places because of segregation.
Springfield’s location along a young Route 66 warranted the city’s spot in the Green Book, a book passed around by African Americans as a guide to finding safe places to eat and sleep while traveling.
“Alberta’s just off Chestnut Expressway was in the Green Book for many years. Grahams Barbeque was well known by travelers as a good place to eat, and a good place to stop and they had cabins behind the bbq place, so those were two places that were well known in Green Book circles,” says Sellars.