Midwest lynchings aren’t included in new report, but a 94-year-old woman remembers one in St. Joseph

“Parents brought their children like they were coming to a picnic,” said Korea Strowder, now 94 and living in Washington, D.C., describing the lynching of Lloyd Warner on the courthouse lawn 82 years ago in St. Joseph. “It was a big to-do, all right.”
“Parents brought their children like they were coming to a picnic,” said Korea Strowder, now 94 and living in Washington, D.C., describing the lynching of Lloyd Warner on the courthouse lawn 82 years ago in St. Joseph. “It was a big to-do, all right.” Courtesy of the family

Korea Strowder pushed her wide eyes against the window glass in the crowded bus, but she never exactly saw the mob hang Lloyd Warner on the courthouse lawn.

Still, she can describe in fine detail the rest of the spectacle that day 82 years ago in St. Joseph. First off, she was 13 and terrified, the only African-American on a bus that got caught in lynching traffic. Cars and buggies filled the streets. Horns honked.

The crowd swelled into the thousands to see Warner, a 19-year-old African-American accused of assaulting a white girl, swing from a tree and his body set afire.

“Parents brought their children like they were coming to a picnic,” said Strowder, now 94 and living in Washington, D.C. “It was a big to-do, all right.”

The lynching at the Buchanan County Courthouse made headlines as far away as the Courier Mail Journal in Brisbane, Australia. But it’s not included in a new report that documents the lynchings of 3,959 African-Americans in the United States from 1877 to 1950.

That’s because the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group based in Montgomery, Ala., looked only at the 12 Southern states with the highest numbers of documented lynchings. Even with the limited scope, the research found 700 previously uncounted lynchings.

Still, Angela Sims, an associate professor of ethics and black church studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Leawood, found the omission of other states misleading.

“It perpetuates the myth that lynching was a Southern phenomenon, and it was in fact a U.S. phenomenon,” said Sims, whose own “Remembering Lynching” project is housed at Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History.

“Lynchings occurred everywhere, certainly Missouri,” Sims said. “Historical amnesia does not serve us.”

Aaryn Urell, a staff attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative who worked on the project, has heard from others with the same concern since the release of “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.”

“Obviously we are aware about what happened in Missouri and other parts of the country, but we had limited resources,” Urell said.

Staffers spent four years doing archival research and traveling the South documenting the cases in small towns and county courthouses.

“We now hope to do a follow-up on those other states,” Urell said.

Criticism of scope she accepts. But not so of purpose.

Such as — why now? Why dig up old newspaper stories about such a tragic chapter in American history?

“Because we believe lynchings back then impacted race relations for years to come and shaped economic and social conditions that exist today,” Urell said.

Lynchings were often carried out in broad daylight in a public setting with most of the town in attendance. They weren’t strictly punitive, but to reinforce racial control and domination, most often to make sure that black residents clearly knew their place in the Jim Crow South.

“It was very much like a spectator sport,” Sims said. “Children were even dismissed from school.”

But being forced to witness lynchings traumatized children, black and white, for nearly a hundred years in this country, she said.

Urell takes a more tangible view. She sees a direct correlation between lynchings years ago and what many view as today’s excessive punishment and police abuse of African-Americans as well as the disproportionate number of black inmates.

Not lost on anyone’s mind, too, is the current case of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old black high school football player in North Carolina. On Aug. 28, he was found hanging from a swing set just blocks from his home. Authorities declared his death a suicide.

The North Carolina NAACP challenged that ruling. The belt used was not Lacy’s. Nor were the shoes found at the scene. The NAACP report also said Lacy would have needed a stool to hang himself the way he supposedly did. No stool was present.

Lacy had recently started dating a 31-year-old white woman.

In 1919 in the small town of Blakely, Ga., a white mob lynched William Little, a black soldier, who refused to take off his Army uniform after having just returned from World War I.

Jesse Thornton was lynched in 1940 in Luverne, Ala., because he failed to refer to a police officer as “mister.” A group of white men lynched Jeff Brown in 1916 in Cedarbluff, Miss., for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he ran to catch a train.

And in 1918 in Lexington, Tenn., Berry Noyse was accused of killing the county sheriff. An angry mob lynched him in the courthouse square, dragged his body through town, shot it dozens of times and burned it in the middle of the street below a banner that read: “This is the way we do our bit.”

These are some of the lynchings detailed in the new report. To be counted, the killing had to be carried out by at least three people and written about in a newspaper.

On June 26, 1919, the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News ran this headline: “John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon.”

Hartfield was accused of assaulting a young white woman. The story said that the governor was powerless to stop the lynching and that thousands of people were flocking to the town.

“He (Hartfield) is wounded in the shoulder but not seriously,” the story said. “The officers have agreed to turn him over to the people of the city at 4 o’clock. The negro is said to have made a partial confession.”

About a fourth of the lynchings included in the report were linked to a fear of interracial sex. But many “terror lynchings” occurred without any accusation of a crime. Most were due to a minor social transgression or simply resisting mistreatment.

According to the new study, Georgia led the way with 586. Next were Mississippi with 576, Louisiana with 540 and Arkansas with 503. Virginia had the fewest of the 12 states with 76.

Some accounts put Missouri at 69.

One of the more notable occurred on Jan. 12, 1931, in Maryville. Raymond Gunn had been accused of attempting to rape and then killing a white schoolteacher.

A mob took Gunn from deputies and marched and dragged him three miles to the schoolhouse where the teacher had been killed. They tied him to the roof and set the school on fire. Gunn burned to death in front of hundreds of onlookers.

The incident received national publicity because it occurred outside the Southern “lynch belt.” One headline in The Kansas City Star read: “Lynch with Fire.”

Another read: “Missouri in Shame.”

In Kansas City, a black man named Harrington was lynched in 1882 from Kansas City’s Fifth Street cable car bridge for killing a police officer. Evidence later showed he had come along after the officer had died.

Leavenworth had a lynching in 1901, when Fred Alexander, a black man accused in the rape and murder of a white woman, was taken from his cell by a mob, soaked in kerosene and burned. Most agreed later he was innocent.

In Westport, a huge oak stood along Washington Street just north of 43rd Street. It was known as “the hanging tree.”

Christal Alexander, 68, remembers that tree. It stood near her family’s home as she was growing up.

“We were young, so we didn’t really think about what it had been used for,” said Alexander, who is black. “Later it meant something.”

The tree was cut down, she thinks, about 15 years ago after it was damaged in an ice storm.

“Actually, I was sad to see it come down. It was history.”

Korea Strowder doesn’t know if Lloyd Warner was guilty of what the mob said he did.

She really didn’t know him all that well because he didn’t attend school regularly. But she remembers what Warner did for her sister.

“He gave her a sucker the first day of school,” she said. “We thought that was nice.”

The sisters were new in town. They had come as orphans and didn’t even live with the same families. They saw each other at school and church.

Trouble started when a white girl claimed she had been molested on the way home from school by a black man.

Strowder’s sister, Katherine Fletcher, died not long ago, but in 2013 on “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” on PBS, she recalled that day:

“There was no evidence this man was involved, but they had to pick up somebody. They chained him to the back of a car and dragged him up and down the main street in the black neighborhood.”

News accounts said the sheriff had tried to fend off the mob, but about the time he ran out of tear gas, a big truck rammed open the steel door to the jail. The sheriff held up a hand and shouted: “Well, it took 20,000 to lick a Dutchman. You can have him.”

Fletcher said on the PBS show that it made her hate white people.

“It was a hate that was really beginning to make me ill after a while,” she said. “If the Lord that I hear about is the Lord of mercy and love, why would something like this happen?”

But she let it go.

“I guess my answer was Jesus was hated and treated so badly but he could forgive. If he could forgive, I should be able to forgive also.”

Strowder beelined it for home after getting off the bus that day.

“When I got there, we all went to the basement and turned off the lights,” she said.

After working in “white people’s kitchens” for years, she started college at age 51. She became a schoolteacher.

Her daughter said Strowder never shied away from the memory of that day in 1933.

“She told my friends because she thought they should know, particularly those who came after the civil rights movement,” Jo Strowder said. “I think she believes that by telling her story, it will never happen again.

“It’s now our responsibility.”

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.