Panel Highlights Life of Milly Sawyers

News

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — On April 1, it will be 182 years since Milly Sawyers, a black woman, was dragged out of a house and beaten by a group of white men. The reason – Sawyers was a free black woman. Among those men, were those who are now considered Springfield’s Founding Fathers. 

On Thursday, sharing more details and answering questions from the public were Giacomo Bologna, the News-Leader reporter who first reported Sawyers’ story, two history professors, a librarian and the archivist who first found the documents.  

“There were two Hollinger boxes that said African-American related. I was going through them,” said  Connie Yen, the director of Greene County archives.

“This is where Milly is petitioning for her freedom,” she said as she pointed to a copy of the documents. 

“It was no surprise that our founding fathers were slave owners, but that there were free people of color here and that one of them had petitioned for her freedom and won, that was a big surprise,” Yen said. 

Sawyers had petitioned for freedom twice before, including in St. Louis where it was denied. But for some reason, she ended up in Springfield later and petitioned in Greene County, where after about a year, her freedom was granted. 

It was at the corner of Olive Street and Booneville, which today is a parking lot, that is believed Milly Sawyers was that night of April 1, 1836, when she was beaten. 
 
John Rutherford, a local history associate for Springfield Libraries says her freedom might have threatened slave owners who were afraid she’d inspire others to seek theirs. 
 
“When someone obtains freedom, it’s a surprise to the community,”  he said. “Especially when you go through a lawsuit as opposed to an owner simply signing it.” 

Rutherford says John Campbell is believed to have lived nearby. 

“When he marked his initials on an ash tree, it was near a sinking well which is now known as Water Street,” he said. 

Campbell and Sydney Ingram were later charged with rioting. Campbell’s brother, Junius,  James A. McCarroll and Lucius Rountree were charged with attacking Sawyers.

“The decision to prosecute was abandoned,” Yen said. “We know that there were no repercussions.” 

The documents Yen recovered don’t tell us much about what happened to sawyers after that, but Rutherford risks speculating. 

“I think she feared for her life and she left,” he guessed. 

Whether she stayed in Springfield or not, they believe it’s important we know who she was and what happened to her while she was here. 

“There’s more than one voice in the community,” said Yen. “Yes, the founders are still our founders, but Milly Sawyers has a story to tell too.” 

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