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April 28, 2011 Volume 32, No. 29

MU professor brings closure to Scott case


New headstone will honor victim of 1923 lynching

Almost 90 years ago, James T. Scott, a prominent African-American, was lynched and buried in an unmarked grave in Columbia Cemetery. Until recently, the only explanation for Scott’s death at the hands of an angry mob appeared on his death certificate: a note that said he had “committed rape.”

Eight days earlier, on April 21, 1923, Scott had been arrested for the assault of Regina Almstedt, a 14-year-old sophomore at Columbia High School. Although he maintained his innocence, insisting he was working as a janitor on the MU campus at the time of the assault, Scott was charged with the crime and held without bail at the Boone County Courthouse. Before he could be tried, 500 angry men broke into Scott’s cell, dragged him to the Stewart Bridge and hung him in front of nearly 2,000 Columbia citizens.

Clyde Ruffin, chair of MU’s Department of Theatre, first learned of James Scott when he read an undergraduate thesis by Patrick Huber, now an associate professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Huber’s research included newspaper articles by Charles Nutter, a freshman in the School of Journalism, who had published the names of some of the mob leaders responsible for Scott’s lynching in the Columbia Evening Missourian. Ruffin later included Scott’s story in an award-winning play he produced called Strands.

But as a professor at MU and a reverend at Second Missionary Baptist Church, where Scott was a member, Ruffin believed he had an obligation to bring Scott’s story to the attention of the entire Columbia community. Last year, he organized the James T. Scott Monument Committee to raise money for a proper headstone for Scott’s grave.

“I really felt those two roles I strive to fulfill placed me in a unique position to do something to address his life,” he said. “Every once in awhile you have a platform to speak for change and justice and it just dawned on me when I was visiting the cemetery one day that I had that platform and I could get it done.”

The committee’s work will culminate at noon tomorrow, when MU faculty members and Columbia citizens gather for a memorial celebration at Second Missionary Baptist Church. Following the service, a permanent headstone will be dedicated and placed at Scott’s gravesite in Columbia Cemetery. 

The new marker will read: Erected April 30, 2011 by the citizens of Columbia as a symbol of our commitment to a future in which people of all races will live together in peace and receive the fundamental rights of equal justice under the law.

The ceremonies will include tributes to Nutter; the Rev. Jonathan Lyle Caston, a former pastor at Second Missionary Baptist Church who sought justice for Scott; and Hermann Almstedt, the father of the young girl who was assaulted and who tried to stop the mob’s actions that night. Speakers will include MU School of Journalism faculty members, as well as the ancestors of Columbia residents who were involved in the events that transpired on the day of Scott’s death. There will also be performances by the Second Baptist Combined Choirs and Hazelwood Central High School Marching Band. 

Shortly after Scott’s death, Ruby Hulen, the Boone County prosecutor, filed charges against five men, including former Columbia City Councilman George Barkwell, who was charged with murder. Despite the testimony of Nutter, who witnessed the lynching, Barkwell was acquitted. No one else was ever tried.

But Scott received a bit of justice last fall, when Columbia resident and independent filmmaker Scott Wilson teamed up with the Missouri Department of Health and Bureau of Vital Records to remove the words “committed rape” from Scott’s death certificate. Those words are now crossed out on the document, replaced with “never tried or convicted of rape.” The document, which is in the Missouri State Archives, records Scott’s cause of death as “Asphyxia due to hanging by lynching by assailants.”

Ruffin said he believes the monument dedication will bring more closure to Scott’s life and put the conflict surrounding his death in its proper light.

“We found that there were some really deep feelings regarding this event deeply seeded in this community,” he said. “Visiting this lynching openly and publicly without the subject of guilt or blame and just acknowledging that it happened will help pursue equality and justice for everybody and the monument will serve as a permanent reminder of that.”

— Kelly Nelson