Soil Collection Ceremony Remembers Springfield, Mo., Lynching Victims - Word&Way

Soil Collection Ceremony Remembers Springfield, Mo., Lynching Victims

Community and religious leaders in Springfield, Missouri, gathered downtown Saturday (Sept. 19) for a soil collection ceremony to honor three innocent Black men lynched there in 1906. The Springfield-Greene County Remembrance Coalition joined the Springfield NAACP, Black Archives of Mid America, Community Remembrance Project of Missouri, and the Equal Justice Initiative in an effort to collect soil at sites of racial terror as acts of remembrance.

Screengrab of Carmaletta Williams, executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America, scooping soil into the jar for Harrace Duncan on Sept. 19, 2020.

Three large jars sat on tables in front of the podium, each with the name of one of the men lynched at that place 114 years ago: William Allen, Fred Coker, and Horrace Duncan. The ceremony was held with a small crowd due to coronavirus, but was livestreamed.

Bob Dixon, presiding commissioner of Greene County, called it a “very somber and very important event” that is part of a nationwide initiative.

“The soil that we take from this place today cries out to memorialize the lives taken by a shameful mob, a mob that betrayed justice with their heinous actions,” he added. “But the good news is that we add our voices to the call for healing, reconciliation, and renewal.”

Christine Peoples, a minister who has served Baptist and other congregations and now works for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, used her remarks to lead “a journey of remembrance” by telling the story of what happened to Allen, Coker, Duncan.

Coker and Duncan were arrested on April 14, 1906, in connection to the alleged assault of a White woman, even though their employer provided alibis and the woman couldn’t identify them as the culprits. That evening, a mob stormed the Greene County jail and hanged the two before shooting and burning their bodies. The mob then burst back into the prison, and grabbed another man, Allen, now also believed innocent of the crime he was held for. He was similarly lynched and burned sometime after midnight on Easter morning.

Although several White men were indicted, the charges were dropped and no one was punished for the lynchings. The city’s Black population got the message and many of them left. The city of Springfield finally installed a plaque last year to remember the victims.

“We recognize that there was injustice, but for us to be able to heal we need to tell of that injustice,” Peoples said at Saturday’s soil collection ceremony. “Know the truth, and it will set you free.”

“Who is our brother? Who is our neighbor? Who is our community?” she added. “We know now that those folks back then didn’t know who their brother was. They didn’t know who their neighbor was. Nor did they know who their community was.”

Screengrab as Russell Ewell speaks while Bob Dixon listens during the soil collection ceremony on Sept. 19, 2020. The jar for Fred Coker is in the foreground.

Russell Ewell, Pastor Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church in Springfield, closed the event with a reciting of the Lord’s Prayer.

During the ceremony, individuals took turns scooping soil into three jars, each with the name of one of the lynched men. The jars will be added to an exhibit at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri. More than 60 jars of soil from across the state will be collected to fill the exhibit, each with the name of someone killed by racial violence in Missouri from 1877-1950.

Note: The story of the lynching of William Allen, Fred Coker, and Horrace Duncan is included in the cover piece for the August 2020 issue of Word&Way. You can download a free PDF copy of that article, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”