History Haunts NAACP Activist

Wednesday, August 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — One of Rosemary Stewart-Stafford's favorite family stories is about how she was conceived the night the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

Her parents, a white mother and a black-American Indian father whom she describes as ``original hippies,'' wanted to do something beautiful while the rest of the world focused on war.

``I grew up with that story,'' said the 54-year-old woman with white skin and graying hair who has become one of Springfield's most vocal NAACP activists. ``I was conceived to be a peacemaker.''

But there is another family story, perhaps her least favorite: Her great-grandfather participated in the 1906 mob lynchings of three black men in Springfield's town square.

Like others who participated, her great-grandfather escaped prosecution. Eyewitnesses were too scared to talk or wanted to protect him. After a short investigation, the matter was dropped.

Stewart-Stafford carries her ancestor's legacy today as a peacemaker crusading for the city to acknowledge its ugly history, even if it is her own.

Sitting in a coffee shop near the town square, she said she feels no guilt about what her great-grandfather, Lorenzo Marion Stewart, did 94 years ago.

Instead, she wants to talk about the lynching's effect on ``my community'' — the black community. She has asked city leaders to make a public apology, dedicate a plaque to the victims and discuss reparations to the black community.

Mayor Lee Gannaway called the request ``totally absurd'' and Councilman Ralph Manley said that even discussing reparations would be like ``taking a step backward.''

``I am sorry for the past wrongs that happened here, but I like to look forward rather than backward,'' Manley said. ``I think a lot of groups have suffered inequities over time, but does that mean every one of them is owed something?''

The stony-faced response hasn't swayed Stewart-Stafford. She's been through enough rounds with city leaders to know that change in southwest Missouri doesn't come easy.

``At times I think people have questioned what I am saying because I'm not dark-skinned,'' she said. ``I sometimes forget some people can't see past skin color.''

On Easter weekend 1906, Horace Duncan, Will Allen and Fred Coker were dragged out of jail by several thousand people, many fueled by the rumor that a white woman had been raped.

The men were hanged from the Gottfried Tower on the square, a structure topped with a bronze Goddess of Liberty. Then a pile of whiskey barrels and packing boxes at the men's feet was set ablaze.

The black men were later found innocent of accusations ranging from burglary and assault to suspicion of murder.

City leaders have been reluctant to revisit the tragedy, fearing it would stir tensions among black and white residents. The whole episode is something many in Springfield would rather forget.

Yet historians say the lynchings so changed the face of this community that it can't be dismissed.

``The lynching added a new dimension of bitterness to Springfield race relations,'' said Mary Clary, who wrote an account of the lynchings. ``Discrimination intensified and blacks lost their positions of authority.''

Census Bureau records from 1900 show that 10 percent of the 32,000 residents of Greene County — which includes Springfield — were black. Ten years later, while the overall population swelled to 63,800, the black population had dropped to 2,625, or 4 percent.

Today, just 2 percent of the county's 225,000 residents are black and there are no blacks on the City Council, school board or police board.

Most locals are aware of the lynchings, but few speak of them. The Gottfried Tower was taken down decades ago. Nowhere in town are the lynchings mentioned.

Much of the black community finds other ways to remember their descendants. One way is with ``Park Day,'' an annual reunion of black families from around the country who gather each August.

``Really, there is very little talk of the lynchings during the weekend,'' said Alma Clay, a 60-year resident. ``It happened and people know about it, but we're here to have fun.''

Stewart-Stafford is sure that a discussion of the issue would do the city good.

``It might make Springfield a place more hospitable to people of color and help white people here be more culturally sensitive,'' she said.

On the national level, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is waging its own battle with Congress. They have watched a proposal to begin studying reparations for blacks languish for years.

``It's a valid issue and merits further discovery and research,'' said NAACP spokeswoman Sheila Douglas.

For his part, local NAACP President Athel Ransom is glad Stewart-Stafford, a peacemaker with a unique perspective on the city's past, is on his side.

``She works so hard on this cause that I think somebody is eventually going to listen to us,'' he said.


On the Net:

NAACP: http://www.naacp.org

City of Springfield: http://springfield.missouri.org