Lynching of 3 young Black men on Park Central Square in 1906 is a tragic part of Springfield's history
Note to readers: this story contains graphic descriptions of a violent hate crime.
Marching bands and floats traveled through Park Central Square in downtown Springfield on a recent Saturday in the city’s annual Christmas Parade as crowds watched and cheered.
The mood was vastly different than it was at the same location on another Saturday many years before. On that day, April 14, 1906, the day before Easter Sunday, three Black men were lynched on the square by an angry, frenzied mob of white men who were seeking revenge for an alleged attack that had happened the night before.
Prior to that day, Springfield had a thriving African American community.
“It is estimated that Springfield’s Black population was somewhere around 10 to 15 percent, said Wes Pratt, assistant to the president and chief diversity officer at Missouri State University. “There were Black lawyers, members of the city council, members of the school board. There was a grocery store that was owned by the Hardwigs that was patronized by both Black and white folks of the region…it was a place where Blacks had settled after the Civil War and after Emancipation, so it was a vibrant Black community.”
During the lynchings, Black citizens hid in terror, afraid they would be next. And in the aftermath, many left Springfield.
“The impact was almost immediately, so you go from 10 to 15 percent to, probably in about two days, to about two percent,” said Pratt. “I mean, people left their property, they left their homes, their livelihoods. I mean, people even moved south if that’s an indication of how terrifying it was to live in Springfield at that particular point in time.”
A frenzied mob forms
The mob formed after a Bolivar woman visiting Springfield claimed she had been attacked by two young Black men, identified later as Horace Duncan and Fred Coker. Duncan and Coker’s employer, a white man, later said they had been at work at the time of the alleged incident and therefore could not have committed the crime.
The two were arrested, released and then taken back to the city jail for their own protection.
The Springfield Republican newspaper reported soon after the lynchings that a group from Bolivar traveled to Springfield where more people were caught up in the thirst for revenge. The mob, which was made up of at least 1000 people, organized at South and Walnut and then descended on the city jail where it proceeded to break down doors and bust windows to get to the alleged attackers.
The mob was eventually able to gain access to Coker and Duncan, and they were dragged to the square where they were strung up on Gottfried Tower, an electrical tower that once stood downtown and that was adorned with a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
The men were hanged. Then, the mob started a fire and burned the bodies.
Not satisfied, the mob returned to the jail and retrieved Will Allen who had been accused in a killing and hung him and burned his body, too.
While the men were being killed, a crowd, which included women, cheered the lynchers on, according to the Springfield Republican.
The next day, Easter Sunday
The next day, Easter Sunday, people dressed in their best clothes for church and went to the square to see if they could view remnants of what had happened. Some took pieces rope, ashes and even the charred remains of the victims as souvenirs.
The Springfield Republican newspaper reported from the square the next day.
"The scene in the square as dawn arose from the east was a weird one. A pale moon hung in the west, in its last quarter, half its face in darkness, as though it was ashamed of the scenes it had witnessed during its flight across the heavens,” the newspaper article reads.
A time when lynchings were prevalent
The murders of Coker, Duncan and Allen, according to Wes Pratt, took place during a time when lynchings were prevalent throughout the United States.
“From about 1877 to about 1950 there were approximately 4000 lynchings in the United States, and several of them were in southwest Missouri,” Pratt said. “But the impact was devastating on the economy, on Black people, you know, and it still resonates today because a lot of folks have the perception that our larger community’s not welcoming or inviting.”
Efforts have been made to ensure the lynchings are never forgotten and that people learn from the city’s dark past.
Former Springfield educator and longtime activist, Carolyn Hembree, led the effort to get a marker placed on Park Central Square.
“Their killing was so reprehensible and has been a blot on our city since 1906 I thought the least we could do is recognize that these men existed, they were here and they should be memorialized in a public space,” said Hembree.
In 1996, Hembree invited MSU English professor Katherine Lederer to talk to her English class at Hillcrest High School about the lynchings that took place in Springfield. The students learned that the remains of Coker and Duncan were buried in an unmarked grave at Hazelwood Cemetery, so they led an effort to have a grave marker placed there.
Lyle Foster, a sociology professor at Missouri State University, said people are thirsty for knowledge.
“A lot of students ask today, ‘How come nobody told me about the Tulsa Massacre? How come nobody told me about American Indian boarding schools? How come nobody told me about what happened on the square in 1906? How come nobody told me that Lincoln School even existed as a separate school for African American children? I want to know that story, and I want to know why that story existed,'" said Foster.
Remembering the events of April 14, 1906 on Park Central Square is just one thing that must happen to make sure lynchings of Black people never happen again, historians and activists say.
Words of hope in remembering
In 2019, the The City of Springfield took a major role in the ceremony honoring the three men who were attacked and killed here. Springfield Mayor Ken McClure spoke words of hope as the historical marker was dedicated.
"Today we continue to change the Springfield community's idea of itself," McClure said at the 2019 event on the square. "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 that event was rare because there are still many communities with documented cases of lynching that have no social memory of it. 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.
The site of the lynchings on Park Central Square is part of Springfield’s African-American Heritage Trail. You can find out more about it at www.africanamericanheritagetrailsgf.org.