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The Missouri Review 27.2 (2004) 122-170

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A Course In Applied Lynching

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Figure 1
In 1923, a mob gathered on the Stewart Bridge near the University of Missouri campus. The question: Would they hang James Scott? [End Page 122]


A hundred years ago, John Stewart, former judge of the Boone County Court, stood at the edge of the University of Missouri campus and looked west at the rolling hills of his pastureland. He saw the future: a neighborhood of large modern houses, each architecturally unique but suited to the others. Prewired houses, preplumbed and connected by miles of underground gas, water and sewer lines. Deep, wooded lots, brick-paved streets, a little parkland for children and dogs to enjoy, all within walking distance of campus and downtown. Like many developers who followed him, he stood to make a fortune selling the good life to the residents of the city of Columbia.

There was an obstacle, however. Between the campus and Stewart's pasture was a ravine thirty feet deep, at the bottom of which lay Flat Branch Creek and the MKT railroad tracks. When necessary, people scrambled down the side of the ravine, crossed the creek on mud-caked planks and climbed up the other side, but this was not an appetizing prospect for the middle-class families he expected to attract. In 1906, in a gesture of shrewd generosity, he built a steel-and-concrete bridge across the ravine and donated it to the city. For a few years it was called Stewart's bridge, then Stewart Bridge. Today the creek runs through a concrete culvert, the track is taken up, the ravine filled and paved over. The bridge is gone and would be forgotten if it weren't for an incident that three generations of Columbians have picked at like a scab.

The year was 1923. A few Civil War veterans, mostly Confederates, could still be mustered to lead the Memorial Day parade. To place a call on the new crankless phones, you lifted the earpiece off its hook and waited for the operator to ask, "Number, please?" The campus ROTC operated a commercial radio station, but at $250 retail, receivers were scarce. For news, Columbians relied on newspapers, three published in the city itself and others brought by train from Kansas City and St. Louis. On Saturdays, cars and farm wagons lined the curbs and filled the parking lane in the center of Broadway.

To buy liquor, you went to a bootlegger. If you were black, you stepped off the sidewalk when whites approached, and if you were [End Page 123] male, you removed your hat. Law-abiding whites seldom ventured into a black neighborhood unless they were "friendly visitors" with Professor Ellwood's Public Welfare Society. In theory, blacks and women could hold public office and serve on juries, but in practice they didn't. A small set of prosperous white men dominated public life, and most others bore this dominance meekly.

Every Tuesday at noon, Walter Williams, founder of the Missouri School of Journalism, turned an hourglass at the center of the Round Table in the back room of Harris's Café, and nineteen of Columbia's most prominent men discussed local and world affairs until the hourglass emptied. A guest always filled the twentieth chair and led the discussion. If the guest was dull, the member who invited him was fined a dollar.

That Professor Hermann Almstedt was invited to the Round Table once shows that he was viewed favorably by leading men of the community. That he was invited twice shows that whoever brought him didn't lose his dollar. The members must have appreciated his intelligence, culture and integrity. He didn't have wealth to recommend him, and if he had a sense of humor nobody seems to have noticed it. Learning, though, he had in abundance. An expert in German literature, an organist and composer, Almstedt wrote poetry in two languages and had published a serious treatise on reduplicating verbs like shilly-shally. He directed the Men...


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