- Seeing the Bridge: The Lynching of James T. Scott and the Spectral Agency of Place
In the wake of the Charleston church shooting of 2015, several municipalities, most notably New Orleans, voted to remove Confederate memorials from their public spaces. One of these planned removals—of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia—triggered the Unite the Right rally of August 2017 and the tragic events that followed. In the aftermath, dozens of Confederate memorials across the United States have been removed or slated for removal. Collectively, these efforts represent a nationwide movement whose aim is to show the public how these sites glorify and assert white supremacy not just in the Jim Crow era when most were erected, but in the present day.
We applaud the social justice envisioned and achieved in removing these highly visible movements and memorials from public space. But we wonder: what of the hidden places in our communities, those places that call on us to remember the racist past and understand its persistence in the present? Don’t these places have a kind of “spectral agency” we have yet to fully reckon with?
In 1923 Columbia, Missouri—the city one of us (Larsen) now lives and teaches in—a Black man, James T. Scott, was lynched on the Stewart Road Bridge by a mob of almost two thousand people, including prominent city leaders and University of Missouri (MU, hereafter “Mizzou”) students. Scott was charged with the attemped rape of Regina Almstedt, the 14-year-old daughter of a white university professor, and imprisoned in the county jail. On the night of April 28, spurred on by an incendiary editorial published in the Columbia Tribune newspaper, a mob armed with blowtorches broke Scott out of the jail, marched him through the downtown, and lynched him on the Stewart Road Bridge shortly after midnight. Five men from the mob were eventually charged with crimes related to the lynching, only one with murder, and he was acquitted. When news of the lynching reached civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, he declared: “The University of Missouri has opened a course in applied lynching” (1923, 55; see also Huber 1991, Hunt 2004 for detailed accounts of Scott’s lynching).
Almost a century later, in the fall of 2015, Mizzou Black student group Concerned Student 1950 and its allies staged a series of protests in response to race-baiting and racial discrimination on campus. Their [End Page 21] protests garnered national attention and eventually led to the ouster of University System President Tim Wolf and Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin (Son and Madhani 2015). In the aftermath, a number of local efforts were launched to help our community openly address the ongoing realities of racism here, and to find ways of moving forward together.
One of these efforts has focused on uncovering the hidden landscape of Columbia’s African-American past and remembering James T. Scott in particular as a figure whose presence still haunts the town. A coalition of city leaders, local residents, and university students got Scott’s death certificate officially changed to read that he died from “asphyxia due to hanging by lynching by assailants,” and a line saying he had committed rape was changed to read that he was never tried or convicted of rape. They raised money to give Scott, who is buried in the Columbia Cemetery, a proper tombstone, which had been just a slab of concrete with a crudely-drawn arrow pointing to where his body lay. Spearheaded by the MU Association of Black Graduate and Professional Students, this coalition then raised additional funds to commemorate the Stewart Road Bridge and the lynching of James T. Scott.
Prior to its memorialization, the place where Scott was lynched had effectively been erased from the landscape. The Stewart Road Bridge was torn down in the 1960s and replaced with a road, double-barrel culvert, and later, a paved recreation trail. There was no indication that anything had happened there at all. The place was difficult to “see.” But it was still there.
The “spectral turn” in cultural geography has helped us appreciate...