They came by the hundreds to honor a man whose life ended in indignity, wrapped in a noose as an eager crowd that included women, children and college students cheered.
James Thomas Scott was killed in April 1923, dragged from his jail cell to a public lynching near the University of Missouri campus before he could stand trial on charges of raping a white professor's 14-year-old daughter. Scott professed his innocence until his final breath, and said a cellmate confessed to the attack.
On Saturday, black and white residents of a Midwest college town that takes pride in its reputation for tolerance gathered in Columbia to honor Scott's life, not dwell on his brutal death. They also came in an effort to heal an open wound.
"We are here today not to mourn the circumstances of his passing, but to celebrate his life," said the Rev. Clyde Ruffin, a theater professor at Missouri who is also pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church.
An overflow crowd lined the historic black church in downtown Columbia for a memorial service that included descendants of Herman Almstedt, the German professor who, convinced of Scott's innocence, unsuccessfully attempted to stop the murder after a mob stormed the city jail as police looked on. He was shouted down, threatened with his own lynching.
Ruffin and other civic leaders have spent the past year organizing the Scott tribute. After a memorial service that featured gospel hymns and tributes to Almstedt and a Missouri student journalist who chronicled the case, the crowd marched with a police escort to Columbia's 190-year-old cemetery for an unveiling of a new headstone at Scott's grave.
Spectators stood five-deep in a wide circle around Scott's grave, which before Saturday only had a nondescript grave marker in what was once the cemetery's segregated section. Event organizers raised thousands of dollars for a headstone that lists Scott's birth and death but also explains his historical importance.
A military honor guard saluted the grave of Scott, a World War I veteran, and unfurled a large American flag as Ruffin offered a eulogy.
"It has been 88 years, but today is the day we are blessed to say, there is rest," Ruffin said. "James T. Scott, take your rest. Sweet rest. God bless you."
Scott, a 35-year-old married janitor at the university medical school, was arrested April 21, 1923, one day after the reported rape of Regina Almstedt. The girl identified Scott based on his distinctive "Charlie Chaplin" mustache and a chemical odor she said her attacker carried.
Historians say the instigators of the Scott lynching included some of Columbia's most prominent citizens. This time, those civic leaders' successors turned out in droves, or showed their support from afar.
"This lynching is a shameful part of the legacy of our state and our society, from a time in the not-so-distant past when we did not provide equal rights and protection under the law to all citizens," Gov. Jay Nixon wrote in a letter to the organizers. "Even though these events are in the past, it is still vital that we remember what happened to help ensure they never happen again."
Douglas Hunt, a retired university historian who wrote about the lynching, said the ceremony was intended to "bring closure ... to a spiritual wound in this community that so far has been unable to heal."
The effort to correct the historical record included work by a local filmmaker and a Boone County medical examiner who successfully lobbied state officials to change the cause of death on Scott's death certificate.
The primary cause is now listed as "asphyxia due to hanging by lynching by assailants." A secondary cause of "committed rape" was removed and now reads "never tried or convicted of rape."
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