Racial history of Howell County Part 5
Wed, 09/30/2020 - 3:30pm admin
For over a decade following the Civil War, parts of Southern Missouri and North Arkansas were plagued by vigilantism in various forms directed at African Americans. In Howell County, the conflict was primarily political, and violence was limited between white citizens of the Radical Republican and Democratic parties. I believe because of the dominance of the Radical Republicans in strict control of Howell County government; the dreaded Ku Klux Klan never got a firm foothold here. However, in 1876, the Missouri Adjutant General and Attorney General were ordered into neighboring Ripley and parts of Oregon County to investigate and suppress Klan activity. As mentioned in previous articles, two separate African American migrant enclaves were established here immediately after the war and with the arrival of the railroad, without white interference.
Events taking place in West Plains during September 1903 are therefore puzzling and don't seem to have originated from any widespread white versus black hatred or conflict.
The West Plains Gazette, dated September 3, 1903, under the headline, "Exodus of Negroes - They Desert Their Homes and Crops in Order to Escape the Silent Enemy," provided details of a disturbing series of letters. The first, directed at African American leader "Pony" Thomas, dated August 10, read, "N---s, take warning. You one and all must be out of the country by September 20, or old n---s will be killed and their children sold as slaves." The letter was signed, "Yours in Earnest."
The article continued, "The receipt of the above letter two weeks ago by Pony Thomas caused great excitement in C---town, and one hundred and twenty-five colored inhabitants of that part of West Plains at once began making arrangements to leave. But the excitement subsided and would have died out entirely had no other message of warning reached C---town. Monday, George Shaw, the oldest Negro in the colony, received a letter that caused a general exodus. The letter read:"
"Please don't forget the notice that you n---s received some time ago to leave this country by the first of September. Now George, tell all of your darkey friends that they want to be making preparations to leave this country because we mean for you to go and you must do it. Remember, there are three hundred and fifty of us whites, and we have got the arms and the ammunition and the backbone to back what we say. Now George, be sure and spread the news among your colored brothers and don't let the sun go down on you after the first of September in West Plains."
The article continued, "The handwriting in both letters was identical. It appeared to have been the work of a woman but was probably instigated by some man. A desire for revenge is the motive assigned for the sending of these anonymous letters, for it is evident that whoever sent the messages had malice toward the blacks."
In a Journal article thirty-five years later, a white writer reminiscing of the times stated, "I remember back then I came to town and the excitement was running high. A lot of cooler heads among the colored people talked to the more reasonable white citizens and were assured that some crank had written the letter."
The language of the 1903 article indicates the lack of respect and common decency of many at the time. It is preserved here to show there was a level of prejudice typical not only here, but throughout Missouri. Paper editor Will Zorn wrote this article without any attempt at a personal filter - but did indicate a degree of sympathy for the African Americans involved. He wrote,
"It took but a short time for the news to spread among the colored population. Colored cooks and washwomen refused to perform their duties, the Negro hod carriers working on buildings left their work, and porters in the saloons threw up their jobs. They couldn't rest with a hoodoo hanging over them."
"No inducement could make many of the blacks stay. Of course, some who had nothing to fear, or, perhaps, have no sins for which to answer, paid little attention to the mysterious messages. They declared their intention to remain and have armed themselves and will shoot if they are attacked by the unknown foe."
"All day Tuesday a continual stream of travel passed to and fro from C---town, across the Frisco tracks to the business part of the city. It was a busy day for second-hand dealers and draymen. The former bought goods for a song, while the latter reaped a harvest hauling trucks and furniture to the depot and stores. A number of the blacks left their furniture in their homes and took the first train, carrying little where they went, just so they got far from West Plains."
"Pony Thomas sold three milch cows and calves, together with hogs and chickens, for a trifle. His furniture went to the second-hand man. Pony had 20 acres in corn, which he abandoned in his flight. He went to Black Rock (Arkansas) accompanied by his family. Mack Alexander, formerly janitor at the courthouse, could not be induced to stay. He declared that he was 'scareder than a rabbit' and was going to run. Springfield will hereafter be Mack's post office address."
"John Hines packed his clothes and took his family to Williford (Arkansas), where he will work in a rock quarry. Family troubles recently caused 'Sweaty' to appear in police court, but he has bidden the officers farewell and will give West Plains a wide berth."
"Mrs. Emma Stacker and her flock have probably gone to Springfield. Emma's 'man' was the Reverend Stacker, who, several years ago, left her and has never come back. He is said to be in Colorado Springs. Emma will be missed in the kitchen of the hotel where she had for a long time been a fixture."
"Walter May can bless the person who wrote the anonymous letters, for they gained him his freedom. Walter was serving a sentence of six months for using offensive language to two white girls and was being worked on the chain gang. He pleaded with the authorities to let him go. Upon being released, Walter sold his furniture, putting his clothing in two bran sacks and taking his wife and nine children, he left for Williford."
Editor Zorn also wrote, "Walter will not be missed."
"Maria Whitfield and her flock of (children) took the southbound train Tuesday night. Maria didn't know where she was going, and her only desire was to put as many miles as possible between herself and West Plains."
"Professor L.L. Lomax, who has been teaching the colored school until this term, got so scared he couldn't wait for the train and walked out of town to the first station south of here. He is going to Caruthersville and from there to Lynn, Indiana, where he claims to have a job as a teacher. Professor Lomax is a yellow Negro, has a good education, and knows how to handle his colored brethren. He was accused a short time ago of creating a disturbance among the colored population, and many turned against him. This caused the school board to turn down his application to teach the colored school, and Cora Moore, of Cairo, Illinois, secured the place. Charges of immorality were also brought against Lenox. He is a single man and very prepossessing. When asked why he didn't go to work during the summer vacation, Lenox replied that he had money in the bank and didn't have to work. He drew out his wealth Tuesday and took it with him."
"George Shaw is one of the Negroes who refused to leave. For eighteen years, George has resided in West Plains, and he claims that the only offenses he ever committed against the law were those of lifting chickens from a roost and shooting craps. Although he is 81 years old, George can do a big day's work. He is industrious and harmless. His wife, to whom he was married five years ago, is a half breed Creek Indian. They have four children, the youngest two months old."
"Another Negro who will not leave is Carter Woodson. He is a familiar figure on the streets of this city, where he peddles leaf tobacco. Last year Carter made considerable money in this manner. His growing crop of tobacco is in fine condition, and it would be a great loss to him were he to leave at this time. Before coming here several years ago, Carter was the proprietor of a saloon in Oxford, Mississippi, and he is well supplied with the goods of the world."
"A number of Negroes who recently came here from Arkansas returned to their former homes. The waiting rooms of the Frisco depot here were crowded Tuesday night with blacks waiting from the southbound train. No one could stop the exodus, and now few Negroes remain here."
Zorn's article speculated, I think incorrectly, that the writing of the letters was prompted by the black men, including Walter May, who had chased two white girls two weeks earlier and used "abusive and vulgar language." They had served time in the local jail and been released. Zorn also wrote,
"There are few negroes in South Missouri. Oregon County citizens will not permit a negro to reside in that county. None are found in Texas and Shannon county. Only two reside in Ozark County, and they are 'Aunt' Anne and 'Uncle' Andy. Many years ago, they were brought to Ozark County by 'Uncle' Jim Price from Tennessee. They were slaves then and, after gaining their freedom, settled on a homestead near their former master. Old Andy is totally blind, and his sister Anne plows the fields, cultivates the crop, and cares for her sightless brother. They reside on North Fork." Note, after the death of Jim Price, the two former slaves returned to the Price home and were allowed to live out the remainder of their lives there.
The next edition of the Journal-Gazette, dated September 10, 1903, happily reported, "The recent scare among the negroes of West Plains which threatened to depopulate the town of blacks, has blown over. Only a few left town, and a majority of these want to come back. They will do so when they can raise the cash to pay railroad fare or else walk back as soon as walking gets good." The article continued,
"It is now generally believed that the anonymous letters received by Pony Thomas and George Shaw were written by Professor L.L. Lomax, who taught the colored school last year and who failed to get the school this term. A negro, who is well posted on the affairs in C---town, says that Lomax was in love with Mattie Stacker. Lomax wanted her to leave with him, but she refused to go. When the anonymous letters were received, Mattie was one of the first who said she was going to leave. She went South, and so did Lomax."
"The night on which the negroes were supposed to leave was one of great excitement. Women and children were afraid to venture outside, and even the men who were superstitious could not be induced from leaving the places to which they had gone for safety. Some of them spent the night at Colonel Markham's large barn, where a watch was kept, and every negro had firearms within his reach. Others congregated at the homes of neighbors and armed themselves, waiting for the mob that never came. One of the negroes asked Captain Hollenbeck to call out a detail of Company K (the local company of Missouri State Guard) to guard them, but the suggestion was laughed at. The city and county officials were appealed to, and when told they would be protected, many of the negroes felt much safer."
"Negroes who had sold their household goods to second-hand dealers were around early the following morning to buy them back. Others who had sold their goods and were to make the delivery and receive their pay the next day came around with the news that they were going to stay and would not sell out. It was again a good day for the second-hand dealers. Pony Thomas, who sold his cows and hogs, and they disposed of his household goods, is still here. Max Alexander, formerly the courthouse janitor, changed his mind and wouldn't leave. Several cooks and dishwashers at hotels, who left their work, are back again in their former positions after two days of sensational experiences."
"Although the officers feel satisfied as to whom was the author of the anonymous letters, they still have not the tangible evidence to secure a conviction. They are still working on the case, and arrests will follow if convicting evidence is found."
No arrest would be made in this case. The African American community soon settled back into its former existence in West Plains. Though that existence was one of Jim Crow segregation and limits on their personal freedom, it is evident there was also a substantial degree of mutual respect between the races here. Just a few years later, Southwest Missouri would erupt in race riots in Joplin and Springfield with armed attacks and lynching of their African American citizens. Howell County remained quiet in this period.