Pierce City, Missouri vigil remembers 3 Black men killed during 1901 lynchings
Pierce City, a town of about 1,277 people in southwest Missouri, once had a sizeable African-American population.
Murray Bishoff, a writer and longtime reporter for The Monett Times, said the Black residents traced their roots to Judah Godley who was brought to the area as a slave in 1848 along with her five children – the property of Mary Godley Jameson and her husband Achilles.
But that all changed on August 19, 1901.
Bishoff said a young woman, 24-year-old Gisela Wild, was assaulted and murdered the day before in a culvert under railroad tracks in Pierce City, and Black men who lived in the town were blamed.
“A lack of evidence directed people towards suspecting African Americans," said Bishoff, "and the town was whipped up into a frenzy over the next 35 hours and ultimately resulted in a five-hour riot against people who had lived here since the earliest days of the town.”
Town residents formed a mob, and they were joined by more people who had heard the news of the murder and who departed from trains going through Pierce City.
When the night of August 19, 1901 had turned to dawn the next day, three Black men were dead: 32-year-old Will Godley whose neck was tied with a rope and who was pushed by white men from a second story balcony that stood above the entrance of the Hotel Lawrence at Commercial and Walnut. When Godley went over the railing, other white men on the ground below fired multiple bullets into him.
Two other Black men — Pete Hampton who was believed to be in his 30s and 70-year-old French Godley — were killed when white men fired into a house and then burned it down. Other Black-owned homes were burned that night as well. Pierce City’s Black residents fled the city, never to return.
"This was the one place where they actually forced an established Black community to leave," Bishoff said.
There were five lynchings in southwest Missouri in a period of 12 years, he said. The first one was in Monett in 1894. Then there were others in Pierce City and Joplin as well as Pittsburg, Kansas. The last was in Springfield in 1906. Bishoff said they largely caused the Black community to abandon the area.
Bishoff has been writing about the lynching in Pierce City since the early 1990s, and he said it’s become a personal story for him. He continues to search for photos and artifacts and people who might have information that’s never been recorded.
"And, I started coming to this spot and lighting a candle about 30 years ago just 'cause," he said. "And, when my wife moved here in '97, she started coming with me, and every now and then I'd have somebody come along."
In 2001, for the centennial of the riot, he held a public presentation where he read a couple of chapters from an historical novel he wrote about the incident – that he’s never sought to have published.
In the last decade or so he said he’s been more public about the candlelight vigil.
Bishoff said for a long time he was nervous about letting anyone know about the annual event. According to Bishoff, some area residents haven’t been very happy about him telling the story.
"There's some collective feeling of guilt, which 100 years later it's like 'why?' But there's some discomfort there, and I've always been a little reluctant to be terribly verbal about it, and after a certain point it's like, 'oh, what the heck?' Every town that has had an incident of this nature needs to talk about it," said Bishoff.
It’s important to remind people about the lynching, he said, so they can try to understand why these things happened and so they can do better.
Just before the candlelight vigil began on Saturday night in downtown Pierce City in front of city hall, a Black man approached Bishoff and introduced himself. He was Selwyn Jones, the uncle of George Floyd who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May of 2020.
Jones said his nephew’s death wasn’t in vain. Because of it, he now travels the country talking to people about Floyd’s murder and about race relations – things that are often uncomfortable to talk about. He said he wanted to be at the vigil to show respect for those who died and to be there for progress.
"Because the things that happened hundreds of years ago we obviously can't do anything about," said Jones, "But thanks to people like him (Bishoff), we're sort of kind of changing that narrative of how things used to be, and, granted, things could get better, but with young people like this in the world that are trying to make them better, they will get better, you know?"
Jones produces a podcast with Harrison, Arkansas city councilperson Elizabeth Darden, and they heard about the vigil from Darden’s mother.
Darden said it was an honor to be there to commemorate individuals who were lynched and falsely accused of something they didn't do because of the color of their skin.
"And it's important for us to be here because that's what we do — we travel around the country," she said. "People seek out Uncle Selwyn for solace to overcome tragedies because their families have been impacted by police brutality, and it's about continuing the conversation to educate one another, and that's very important."
Jones said, when he heard about the event in Pierce City, he knew he had to be there to try to make a difference.
"You know, there's a lot of people that have trauma and disarray from the colors of one's skin, from their religion, and we just set out on the road to show people we're all the same," he said. "We're absolutely all the same. We are of the human race. And, we can combat this because for three days everybody in the world with the exception of a couple of places stood up and hollered my big sister's baby boy's name, you know? Because it made everybody open their eyes and say, 'wow' — just like Mr. Murray's opening eyes right here. So, that's the reason why I'm here."
The event in Pierce City ended with the lighting of candles.
"So, friends, thank you for coming," Bishoff told the crowd, "and let us hold our candles in a moment of silence in remembrance for those who have gone before us, those who fell on this night, and those whose memory we cherish by coming together to hear their story."
Bishoff will continue to host the vigil. The tornado that roared through downtown Pierce City in May of 2003 didn’t stop him. He said he and his wife Joy had to sneak in to get to the site. There were no lights, and the old buildings, whose walls are full of history – both good and bad -- were creaking as they stood there, creating an eerie scene.