Updated on Jan. 8 to clarify that there is an earlier plaque honoring another lynching victim in Missouri.
Levi Harrington was lynched on April 3, 1882, in the West Bottoms neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri.
That may seem like a long time ago, but after 136 years, the racial terror of lynchings reverberates today. That's why lynchings — and Harrington — are being remembered in Kansas City with a new memorial.
The story of Harrington provides a compelling example of how racial terror lynchings were routinely carried out prior to the era of Jim Crow laws.
Harrington, a black man in his 30s at the time of his lynching, was a married father of five who worked as a porter and laborer, according to Geri Sanders, an archivist with the Black Archives of Mid-America who is researching the Harrington story.
"They caught him"
Harrington’s parents had moved their family to Kansas City, most likely to escape the racial horrors of Mississippi after their time as slaves had ended. Newspaper accounts show that Harrington was accused of killing a police officer.
“He was a good man and he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They said he was eating, the mob came, he looked up, saw the white mob and he ran. So they caught him. And you know what happens with a mob, is that they go ahead and lynch whoever they found,” Saunders said.
Shortly after Harrington’s lynching, the actual culprit was arrested and put on trial.
Harrington’s lynching was remembered Saturday, with the placement of a memorial marker in West Terrace Park overlooking the West Bottoms in Kansas City. It is the first nationally recognized and sponsored marker of a Missouri lynching, done in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) as part of their national museum. In 2016, students at the University of Missouri unveiled a marker to recognize the lynching of James Scott, a black man accused of raping a white teenage girl in Columbia in 1923.
The Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, the Missouri Conference of the NAACP, Missouri Faith Voices, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Equal Justice Initiative teamed up to make it happen.
Lynching and the death penalty
Staci Pratt, who leads Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was a driving force behind the marker. She sees a connection between lynching and the work she does advocating against capital punishment.
“There was a correlation that there was really a connection between the regions in Missouri, where we’re engaging in capital punishment, producing executions, have more pending capital cases and the historical practice of lynching,” Pratt said.
She said race is the biggest correlation, both in who was chosen for lynching then and who gets the death penalty now.
“If the victim is a white female, you are 14 times more likely to get a capital sentence than if the victim is a black male,” Pratt said of sentences in Missouri. “(Those punishments) are not made upon a methodical examination of what is considered the worst of the worst crimes. They’re made on a structure that is meant to reinforce racial hierarchies.”
In the soil
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, is dedicated to honoring the victims of racial terror lynchings. It has collected soil from many of the sites of documented lynchings. Soil from the spot of Harrington’s lynching has already joined the memorial in Alabama.
Sanders said the work doesn’t end with the Harrington memorial. She is still doing research to find his descendants. And she wants Missouri to honor the other victims with a museum, continuing the work of the Equal Justice Inititative to identify lynching victims around the country.
“We’re trying to establish now some type of template to continue to recognize the other 60 and try to identify those who maybe the EJI did not,” Sanders said.
Poet Glenn North, who worked for several years at the Black Archives of Mid-America, said this memorial begins a conversation in the community about truth and reconciliation, similar to those that have happened in South Africa and in Germany. The conversation, however, isn’t about making whites in America feel bad or guilty, but to encourage more awareness.
“If we are able to look at that truth, if we really want to move towards reconciliation," North said, "then at this point, having learned more about that history, I think white people are in a unique position to employ what I call a proper use of privilege to dismantle some of the systems that are in place that keeps this legacy of racial terror alive.”
Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon.