African Americans Face Racism In Springfield, Missouri
February 4, 2008
Cheryl Fischer, The Kuumba Human Rights Focus Group
A Paper Written by Cheryl Fischer on Racism in Springfield
Poverty and lack of opportunity did not cease at the end of slavery for enslaved African-Americans. The effects of contemporary impoverishment and lack of opportunity continues to exist for African-descent people in Springfield, Missouri, USA, a locality in Southwest Missouri, from the end of slavery through the Twentieth Century and into the Twenty-First Century. Unfortunately, the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution, the passage of the civil rights acts of 1866, 1870, and 1871, and the establishment of the civil rights acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 did not abort slavery’s after effects. Specific issues examined in this paper are the problems of racism in education, employment, health care, and housing. Problems in the criminal justice system-which are quite complex as they include the issues of racial profiling by law enforcement officers, the denial of racial justice in the courts, and the disproportionate representation of African-descent people in local jails and prisons-are also examined. Being aware of these problems helps reparations scholars understand why the reparations movement is an important event world-wide and why detailed information from small cities, semi-rural towns, and rural areas are important.
Although African-descent people comprise approximately 2.3% of the current population in Springfield, they were 20% of the population in the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, African-descent people in Springfield had a fairly thriving community around 1900. Mrs. E.C. Curtis (now deceased), a member of the African-American community, has stated that the largest grocery store was African-American owned as was the largest funeral parlor. Moreover, African-Americans actively participated in civic functions from being on the city council, on the school board, and in the Republican Party. At least three African-Americans were police officers, one was a mail carrier (out of twenty-five postal workers total), and one was the coroner. In April, 1906, a lynching-in which three innocent young African-American men falsely accused of having sexually molested a European-American woman-occurred on the town square. The innocent young men were hanged from a replica of the Statue of Liberty, set afire while they were still alive, and had their bodies dismembered as some of the 6,000 strong lynch mob took body parts as souvenirs. As the mob turned to find other African-American victims, word got to most in the African-American community. Many African-American citizens then fled from Springfield never to return. Some were able to get shelter in the basements and cellars of sympathetic European-Americans. According to Mrs. Curtis who was alive during the time of the lynching, “Springfield has never been the same. A lot of good colored people here then just left.” She added that many of those in the lynch mob aimed to “burn out all the Negroes and run them out of town…” From that time on the African-American population dwindled until it became roughly 2% of the general population, a percentage at which it hovers today.
African-American Springfieldians have lived under the shadow of the 1906 lynching since that fateful day. During most of the decades following the lynching, there were no African-American doctors, lawyers, police officers, or postal workers until the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many scholars and historians have only started to reconstruct the African-American history of Springfield in the past four decades. Yet much of the information is hidden in obscure newspaper accounts and possibly other heretofore unknown records. Examining federal government records about the participation of African-American Springfieldians in government programs would be an important addition to this work. Yet that information is beyond the scope of this paper and is reserved for future research.
No newspaper accounts exist about Springfield’s African-American community from the teens, the twenties, and the thirties. Yet the Greene County Archives has two directories which list the names and addresses of members of Springfield’s African-American community. From the Negro City and County Directories of 1936 and 1937, out of a total of 59 “manufacturers and industries” in Springfield, only twelve employed “Negroes.” Those that employed “Negroes” were indicated with the letter “N.” Ironically, some of these companies advertised in the Negro directories, yet only employed European-Americans. Two of the firms which did not employ African-Americans were the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and Lipscomb Grain and Seed Company. More than likely African-Americans supported these companies by buying their products, yet could not be employed by them. It is quite possible that these companies received federal government contracts which meant they benefited from public money despite their unwillingness to hire African-American workers.
Just as the 1960s was a time of awakening for African-Americans throughout the United States due to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, Springfield’s African-American community also started to demand more rights. In 1963, leaders of the Springfield NAACP (National Association for The Advancement of Colored People) charged that it was almost impossible for “a Negro to find a decent home or a good job in Springfield.” The leaders added that job discrimination was rampant, against African-Americans. They, moreover, stated that “regardless of the amount of training and qualifications that Negro has, it is extremely difficult for him to find a good job.” “Most of the major companies and firms in Springfield employ only a handful of Negroes above the maintenance level, statistics produced by the NAACP showed,” the leaders maintained. “Training courses and other areas geared to up-grading the worker are largely closed to Negroes,” they concluded. The state employment office also discriminated against African-Americans in both not referring them to jobs and in giving European-American applicants preference. Many of the same problems expressed by the NAACP leaders in the 1960s still exist today in Springfield. For example, the employment office (now called the One-Stop Career Center) received approximately $3,000,000 for fiscal 2002 from the Department of Labor (federal government). Yet many local African-Americans claim they have never been assisted by that office which means they are not benefiting from a publicly funded community resource.
During the 1970s, African-Americans in Springfield continued to press for civil
rights and equality of opportunity. The Springfield NAACP attempted to meet with the City of Springfield to improve conditions for African-Americans. In the fall of 1976, members of the NAACP held ongoing meetings with city leaders about the lack of employment of African-Americans. The concerns then were to: “…[i]dentify major job classifications, and the qualifications required; analyze vacancy trends in order to forecast hiring needs; review the recruiting system and job applicant screening process; set hiring goals; identify training sources; collect a wide range of data on the minority (African-American) work force; and consult directly with minority community associations, businesses, and churches to obtain their views on employment needs.” No information exists concerning whether or not the leaders’ demands were met. The 1976 concerns are strikingly similar to current concerns as many of the same problems still exist.
The African-American community continued to sporadically dialogue with community leaders about important issues over time. Very few progressive changes, however, occurred. Current statistics for African-descent people in Springfield are dismal and are evidence of the post-slavery legacy and its effects. According to the City of Springfield’s own records, 35% of African-Americans live in substandard housing and 5% live in dilapidated housing. Seventy per cent of African-Americans earn $20,000 or less annually, and only 12% of African-Americans earn from $30,000 to $60,000 annually. Reportedly 0% of African-Americans in Springfield earn over $60,000. The infant mortality rate for African-Americans is 26 per 100,000 live births, and the HIV/AIDS rate is 10% of all local HIV/AIDS cases. Eighteen per cent of African-American high school students drop out, which is higher than the national drop-out percentage (13%) for African-Americans. Only one African-American-owned business-a barbecue restaurant-can be considered successful today.
Many problems exist in the education arena. The Springfield Public Schools (SPS) lacks a diversity of professional and non-professional staff. Only approximately eleven teachers and administrators are of African-descent out of a total of about 1,700 teachers and administrators in general. The security department of SPS has no African-Americans at all as of three years ago. A new policy (for which no one will claim responsibility for initiating) demands that all security personnel have three years of police experience. Such a policy excludes African-Americans as the Springfield Police Department has only two African-American officers who are, more than likely, not interested in becoming school security personnel. The drop-out rate is also a problem. Eighteen percent of African-American high school students drop out of SPS, which is the highest rate of all the ethnic/racial student groups. Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) documents from the regional U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR/ED) which SPS signed in 1996 and 1998 are ignored by the school district and have had no influence on stemming the tide of drop outs or ameliorating other racial problems.
Racial problems also exist in the child protective services and the juvenile services. African-American families have complained about racism from social workers and supervisors in the Greene County Division of Family Services (DFS). Most recently, an African-descent biracial two-year-old, Dominic James, was shaken to death by his
European-American foster father who, some have claimed, has ties to area hate groups (Southwest Missouri is home to seventeen hate groups mainly of the Christian Identity ilk). Although the foster father has been charged with second degree murder, the racial aspects of the case have been ignored. The social work supervisor involved in Dominic’s case had also been accused of racism by other African-American parents who had filed complaints about her before Dominic’s death with the Office for Civil Rights/Department of Health and Human Services (OCR/HHR). African-American children placed in foster care have experienced many problems including being given anti-psychotic drugs without having been seen beforehand by a physician, being abused by European-American foster parents in having to listen to racial slurs and jokes, and being verbally and physically abused. This abuse continues as state officials fail to acknowledge the presence of racism in the child and family welfare systems. African-American parents have also complained about the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) in Springfield. None of the African-American parents and grandparents of children placed in foster care has seen the children’s juvenile records, including court records. Moreover, they have never even seen their own (parents and grandparents’) records which are kept by the JJC. Therefore, they have no knowledge of the accuracy of such written records. Parents and grandparents have also complained that they have never been informed of their rights either by DFS or JJC workers. In addition, they feel that their due process rights and those of their children have been denied. One parent complained that the juvenile judge never listened to her side, but rather rubber stamped the testimony of DFS case workers and social work supervisors. The racism endemic in the DFS and JJC has contributed to the destabilization of local African-American families.
Other problems exist as well. Although the African-American population is 2.3%, some people think that possible 15% to 35% of the children and youth placed in foster care and in the JJC are African-descent. So far, DFS, OCR/HHS, and the U.S. Justice Department have not helped parents, grandparents, and community activists/advocates get statistics and other information about children of color in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. One young woman who was placed in foster care at the age of thirteen is now almost twenty years old. She overdosed on drugs twice while in the care of DFS and was even missing for a while. Her parents, whose parental rights were not terminated then and who still paid child support to the child support enforcement office, asked the DFS and OCR/HHS to have their daughter transferred to a place where she could get psychological help after her second overdose. The parents never received any responses. Moreover, currently, the mother who had complained about the situation died approximately four months ago. Unfortunately, her remaining children are now living with unknown relatives.
For African-Americans, employment has been a consistent and thorny problem. In 1976, the local NAACP filed eight complaints with the “U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. Department of Labor, the state Commission on Human Rights, and various other agencies.” They included criticism for “alleged failure to interact with the minority community, for using black employees temporarily on federally funded programs, for using out-dated minority population data, for not having minorities represented in all levels of city government and for using ‘systematic discrimination’ to exclude minorities.” These concerns that the NAACP outlined are still evident. Currently in Springfield there are two African-American physicians, no African-American attorneys, two African-American police officers, and approximately six African-American postal workers. There are a negligible percentage of African-Americans in the building and construction trades. African-Americans are not visible as workers in restaurants, hotels, and other service industry positions. Moreover, they are not visible in the corporate world. The local state university which has a student population of 20,000 has only four African-American professors. African-Americans experience racial discrimination in trying to get hired for jobs and also experience racially hostile environments while being employed. An African-American man worked at the Southwest Power Administration in Springfield for nine years and kept a diary of the racial discrimination (nooses in his work space, having the word “nigger” used in his presence, and more) he experienced. He finally decided to move out of state. African-American postal workers and their European-American supporters tried to bring a class action suit against the U.S. Postal Service in Springfield after having endured looking at many hangman nooses and “nigger face” balloons and experiencing other racist abuse. In November, 1999, they retained the prominent St. Louis (Missouri) civil rights attorney, Louis Gilden, who unfortunately died in December, 2000. His partner, Charles Oldham, continued the case. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) administrative judge refused to classify the case as a class action suit. Currently Mr. Oldham is handling each plaintiff one-by-one. The postal workers feel that the EEOC has been remiss in assisting them.
In a separate case, another African-American claimant was able to get more help from the EEOC mainly because two community activists barraged both the regional and the Washington, D.C., offices with letters, faxes, e-mails and many telephone calls about his case. That man, who is the only African-American (out of 300 workers) working for Tuthill Pneumatics, suffered much abuse. He found a dead cat in his truck one day; often had the words “nigger” and “monkey” and the expression “even a 19th Century Mississippi nigger knows that” stated in his presence; found the milk for his snack cereal frozen; had his work tinkered with so that he would have to work extra hours on it; and more. Although the EEOC did find probably cause in his case, that office will not represent him in court as other regional EEOC’s in Illinois and Arkansas have done in seemingly similarly situated cases. Yet in another case, an African-American food service manager for the Greene County Jail was brutally beaten by a European-American jail lieutenant after the two had argued about the amount of food available for a given meal. The lieutenant reportedly slammed the food service manager several times against a concrete pillar causing him to suffer a dislocated shoulder for which he had to receive hospital attention and therapy. The food service worker was “fired” and no charges were brought against the lieutenant.
Probably the worst problems for African-Americans in Springfield are those relating to law enforcement and the judiciary. Many African-Americans have stated that lawyers in Springfield (all European-Americans; the only African American lawyer stayed less than 2 ½ [from 2000 to 2002] years then suddenly left) do not take civil rights cases. Claim No. Four in a Writ of Habeus Corpus is for a young African-American male many believed to have been wrongfully convicted as a juvenile. The Writ is by the young man’s criminal defense attorney, Sean O’Brien, of the Public Interest Litigation Clinic in Kansas City, Missouri. According to the Writ, a former Springfield judge, Thomas McGuire, was a blatant racist. Listed are some of McGuire’s quotes:
1) “Those two are just breeding little niggers that killed the best nigger in town.” [Judge Thomas McGuire, referring to petitioner and his parents, before ordering petitioner to be prosecuted as an adult}.
2) “McGuire commonly used derogatory terms to refer to black people and women. After sentencing…a black man, Judge McGuire stepped into chambers and said, in regard to [the black man], ‘Hitler couldn’t have been all wrong.’
3) “…[A]n African-American friend of Hungerford’s [McGuire's bailiff]…walked to the courtroom and tapped on the door glass to get Hungerford’s attention. Back in chambers Judge McGuire asked, ‘What did that nigger want?’
4) “Hungerford also recalled that every Friday the judge would go to lunch at Shady Inn (a Springfield restaurant which no longer exists) and that ‘he always came back with a new stock of what he called “nigger jokes,” and he would “spend all Friday afternoon, you know, hearing routine motions and relaying these jokes to various attorneys that came into the courtroom.”‘
Quite recently, a European-American attorney originally from Springfield who became head of the Public Defender’s office in St. Louis, Missouri, was fired after telling a racist and offensive joke in the presence of an African-American woman attorney. African-Americans cannot help but feel that they will encounter bias in the local judicial system.
Many other problems exist as well. African-Americans complain of racial profiling and police brutality. For the third year in a row, at least 23% of all African-Americans stopped by local police officers have had their cars searched. White-on-Black crimes which should be reported as hate crimes are not. In fact, in some cases, the race of an African-American victim of what should be considered a hate crime is often labeled “white” on police reports. In that way, the crime is considered as a “white-on-white” crime, and race never enters the picture. African-American criminal suspects have higher bail than European-Americans who have been accused of the same type of crime. Prosecutors use their prosecutorial discretion to recommend jail and/or prison time for African-American defendants whereas they may recommend probation for European-Americans who have been charged with similar crimes. Probation officers have been reported as sending African-Americans on probation back to prison for trivial “violations.” One example occurred when a young African-American male was returned to prison because he only worked thirty hours a week instead of forty hours a week. The probation officer did not consider the difficulty that African-Americans-males in particular-have getting and keeping jobs in Springfield. Community activists/advocates have also surmised that at least 25% to 50% of all African-Americans have had negative encounters with local law enforcement offices and that approximately 33% of the inmates in the local Springfield-Greene County Jail are African-Americans (even though the African-American population is 2.3%). In addition, African-Americans charged with
relatively trivial offenses are sent to state and federal prisons at an extremely high rate compared to similarly situated European-Americans. The U.S. Justice Department has not taken effective measures to review local policies, local laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination in Springfield and surrounding areas.
The confederate flag has always been a prominently displayed object in Southwest Missouri. An African-American colleague who lives in Willard, Missouri, which is about ten miles to the northwest of Springfield, spotted a large confederate flag being displayed in a small parade for Willard High School on May 15, 2002. In April, 2002, a large confederate flag was drawn on the grounds of Neosho High School in Neosho, Missouri (about forty miles southwest of Springfield near Joplin, Missouri). The flag was part of the high school “seniors’ tradition” to leave expressions and art work before they graduate. On June 2, 2002, two community activists/advocates witnessed the Sons of the Confederacy hold a confederate-praise ceremony in the national veterans’ cemetery in Springfield. Three extremely large confederate flags were erected in the “confederate” part of the cemetery and small confederate flags had been placed at the graves of all confederate soldiers. Although the activists/advocates contacted the office for veterans’ cemeteries at the Veterans Administration, they never received a response telling them exactly what statute or executive order allows a confederate flag to fly in a federally-funded veterans cemetery. It is important to understand that at least five articles form the Confederacy’s constitution supported “negro slavery” as a property right for European-Americans. That the confederate flag is being flown more and more outwardly in the United States in general and even more so in Springfield and Southwest Missouri in particular poses serious problems.
A list of other incidents which indicate the degree of local racism are as follows:
Fall, 1994 – A nineteen-year-old African-American male was found hanged to death thirty miles north of Springfield. Although information to the contrary exists, his death was officially ruled a suicide.
December, 1997 – An African-decent man was brutally beaten by three European-American skinheads. He had to be taken to the hospital. Two of the skinheads were arrested, but they eventually received sentences of 5-years probation.
June 17, 2001 – An African-American man was stabbed three times in a Denny’s Restaurant by skinheads (reportedly 15 skinheads-shaved heads, Aryan Nations tee-shirts, swastikas, and white supremacist tattoos). Although there were several witnesses at the time of the incident, no one had been arrested, despite the fact that the Justice Department was involved in the investigation. Community activists/advocates who had tried to get updated information about the case got no responses from the Justice Department representatives. Amazingly, around January 25, 2004, an announcement was made that local law enforcement officers along with the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) would be investigating the case. The community will have to see what happens.
August, 2001 – Four African-American county jail inmates were urinated on by two European-American jailers. Although the inmates had asked to speak to civil rights activists, such contact was denied. The inmates eventually received $25,000 settlements each. Yet most of them used the money to bail themselves out of jail, pay back child support and to pay their attorneys. At this writing, community activists/advocates who have filed a complaint about the incident with the U.S. Justice Department at the request of two inmates’ relatives have not received a response.
August, 2002 – After an African-American man complained to the police chief about police harassment, he had a visit soon after from two European-American police officers who threatened to take him to jail if he ever complained to the chief again.
October 2, 2002 – An African-descent male originally from Kenya was found hanged to death about a hundred feet away from the site of the 1906 lynching. His death was officially ruled a suicide, but community activists/advocates do not think so.
July 25, 2003 – An African-American youth (nineteen years old) was found dead hanging from a rope just outside of Springfield. This information circulated by word of mouth as the event did not end up being reported in the newspaper. Many people in the African-American community learned about the incident more than six months later.
At least two to three decades ago, citizens with grievances of civil rights violations could complain directly to the federal government’s civil rights offices in Washington, D.C., and get assistance. Under the guise and pretense that local leaders know how to solve local problems, aggrieved citizens must now file complaints with regional and local offices. Often the regional federal government offices are staffed with local people, mainly European-Americans, who have the same sensibilities as those who cause the racial problems. The following information is one example of how race is ignored. The Missouri Task Force on Gender and Justice Strongly recommended that a similar Task Force on race and justice be established at the end of their report on gender and justice in 1993. “The Task Force on Gender and Justice recommends that the Missouri Supreme Court establish a Task Force on Race and Justice to conduct a study of whether racial bias exists in the administration of justice in Missouri, and, if so, what steps should be taken to remedy it…The evidence presented to this body, limited as it was, suggests to the Task Force that serious study of racial issues is warranted.” To date, no such task force has been established.
Other problems in finding solutions to racial discrimination issues lay in inadequate civil rights laws and their interpretation. Current U.S. civil rights laws are not as extensive as international instruments. Moreover, civil rights offices which have enforcement power have spent more time and effort assisting the attorneys of businesses, industries, and institutions in becoming familiar with civil rights legislation thereby giving them the very edge over beleaguered, untutored, legally illiterate complainants. Very little has been done in Springfield to advise victims of racial discrimination about civil rights laws. U.S. laws historically have never included the rights to a home, employment, health care, and other basic services from which African-Americans do not always enjoy. African-Americans have had to struggle to get the mere pittance of such social and economic rights. African-Americans in Springfield do not have the resources to get help from local attorneys who, for the most part, practice corporate law. Very, very few law students now specialize in civil rights law, therefore, civil rights attorneys are dwindling. The rare lawyer who does practice civil rights law prefers to take class action rather than individual cases. Non-governmental organizations often do not have the funds or other resources to fully dismantle racism. Moreover, the majority of such organizations are in large metropolitan areas, which means people who are suffering in small cities, semi-rural towns, and rural areas will not be served. Very few federal agencies have ever come to Springfield to monitor the compliance of civil rights law which means that the appropriate federal departments and agencies have not documented the true state of racial problems in Springfield and places similar to it. A further result of the lack of proper federal government compliance monitoring is that local citizens are not well-informed about their civil and political rights including the rights of equal protection, due process, and non-discrimination.
The Reparations Movement is an important one for African-descent people world-wide. It can provide the opportunity for all of us to acquire up-to-date information about the enslavement of African peoples world-wide and to learn specific information about post-slavery conditions. It can also help us evaluate the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of civil rights governmental and non-governmental offices and organizations in countries whose populations inherited the legacies of slavery. In particular, regarding Springfield, a viewpoint from the standpoint of reparations causes us to investigate whether or not African-Americans have benefited from programs and services from which whites have profited historically. This small report lays a bit of the foundation for the case for reparations for African-Americans and other African-descent people in Springfield, Missouri, who have suffered long and who deserve repair for slavery’s legacies which they continue to endure today.
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