A dark day in Springfield’s history was brought to light Wednesday. A new marker on Park Central Square tells the story of three young black men who were lynched as thousands watched the day before Easter Sunday in 1906.
Wes Pratt, chief diversity officer at Missouri State University and a lifelong Springfield resident, spoke to the crowd before the marker’s unveiling.
"Today we know there's much more to our history even though much of that is not so noble. But today is a noble day," said Pratt. "Today we preserve what we as an inclusive community perceive and know is important in the history of Springfield, Greene County, Missouri and these United States of America, and today we're here to remember, commemorate and honor those we lost that Easter weekend in 1906: Fred Koker, Horace Duncan and Will Allen and to ask forgiveness for the early sins of Springfield that resulted in their unjustified murders."
Koker, Duncan and Allen were hanged on the square and their bodies burned.
The lynching followed a report by two people, Mina Edwards and Charles Cooper, who said they were attacked and Edwards raped. Police arrested Koker and Duncan, but released them after their employer said they’d been working at the time of the alleged attack. They were taken to jail later, reportedly for their own protection. But an angry mob dragged them from the jail to the square where they were killed. Afterwards they went back to the jail for Allen and took him to the square, gave him a mock trial and hanged him as well. It's estimated there were up to 5000 people who watched.
Lyle Foster, sociology professor at MSU, said the remains of the three were gathered for souvenirs. Postcards were made of the event so people could send them to relatives.
"Crowds walked by on their way to Easter Sunday services the following morning to spectate and to celebrate what I consider a tragic aftermath," Foster said.
He said it was difficult for him to stand on the square and speak yesterday knowing what happened there.
"I sense, I feel and I emote what took place here," he said. "Some of you will say, 'well, how can you, brother? That was over 100 years ago.' Let somebody go to where the slaves left the coast of Africa and where they arrived on the shores of this nation and see what they feel 400 years later. I grieve for our community for what we could have been."
The lynching greatly impacted Springfield’s black community—estimated to be around 15 to 20 percent of the population at the time. Many fled, fearing for their safety.
Foster said it’s important we always remember what happened that day and not “whitewash it.” He said “we’re going to talk about it, experience it and hopefully move on from here to a new place in our city.”
Springfield Mayor Ken McClure also spoke words of hope.
"Today we continue to change the Springfield community's idea of itself," he said. "The very fact that we are all here together in a symbol of oneness reveals that we are a city indeed committed to unity and inclusion, that we want to continue to break down the barriers that separate us."
Gabrielle Daniels with the Equal Justice Initiative said Wednesday’s event was rare because there are still many communities with documented cases of lynching that have no social memory of those lynchings. EJI works with communities to commemorate and recognize the traumatic era of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites across the country and erecting historical markers in those spaces.