February 10, 2021
Want to explore Black history in Downtown Springfield? Just look for the signs.
The Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail has placed three descriptive plaques in our neighborhood dedicated to the formerly unrecognized contributions made by people of African descent to the history of the Queen City. It also aims to involve the Springfield community in the identification and celebration of the contributions made by people of color to the community.
Here’s where you can learn more about Springfield’s Black history year-round.
On April 13, 1906 — Good Friday — Springfield and Greene County had a thriving population of African American professionals, business owners and community leaders. By the early hours of Easter Sunday, though, the city had been overwhelmed by hate and violence because of a false allegation that two black men, Horace B. Duncan and Fred Coker, had assaulted a white woman.
A lynch mob was formed, and Coker and Duncan were taken to the county jail for their protection. A third young African-American man, William Allen, was already in the jail. The mob broke in and took Duncan and Coker to the Square, where they were hanged from the Gottfried Tower, an iron structure topped with a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
Not satisfied, the mob returned to the jail and brought Allen to be lynched. By Easter Sunday morning, all that remained was a pile of ashes and the men’s burned body. A crowd of thousands had watched this horror.
Fearing more violence, many African Americans left Springfield, some never to return. A grand jury later met and indicted 18 men who were involved in the lynching. One man was brought to trial, but no one was convicted for the murders.
A marker on the southeast side of Park Central Square commemorates the lives of Duncan, Coker and Allen. The backside of the plaque has educational information about the lynchings of Black Americans between 1877 and 1950.
Located in the parking lot between Jordan Valley Community Health Center and the Springfield Municipal Court, on the northeast side of Downtown, is the former site of Alberta’s Hotel.
A three-story house that first served as the community hospital for the Black community was remodeled by Alberta Ellis to include rooms for paying guests, a large dining room, a rumpus room, a beauty salon, barbershop and snack bar. The hotel, staffed by family members, was located three blocks north of historic Route 66.
Alberta’s Hotel was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book beginning in 1954. Over the years, Route 66 travelers from across the United States, and other countries, stayed at Alberta’s Hotel.
Located just east of the Alberta’s Hotel site is Church Square South. It includes two historically African-American churches: Gibson Chapel and Pitts Chapel.
Gibson Chapel, on the corner of Tampa and Washington, was formed as the First Negro Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1865 by a freed slave named Rev. Peter Lair, later spelled Lear, with help from a white minister. The frame building was constructed on the south side of the Jordan Creek at the foot of Washington Avenue.
In 1891 a new brick church was built on the corner of Washington and Pine, now 536 East Tampa St. The church was renamed Gibson Chapel after the death of Rev. H. A. Gibson, who worked tirelessly to get the new structure erected. After the Easter lynching, many families sought shelter in the chapel’s basement while male church members guarded the building. After World War II, five members of the choir formed the singing group the Philarmonics, which went on to regional and national fame.
Pitts Chapel UMC was constructed in 1865 after an arsonist burned the log cabin church along Jordan Creek. Fleming McCullah donated the land for the church, which also housed the Freedmen’s Bureau School and later the public school for Black children.
Edgar Pitts was the pastor of the chapel three times after the Civil War, and when he died in 1889 the church was renamed in his honor. In 1911 the congregation built a new church structure on the corner of Benton and Pine, now Tampa.
Springfield’s Black history stretches well beyond Downtown Springfield. Learn more by checking out the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail.