Sunday, January 30, 2011

Documenting a Monumental Miscarriage of Justice

The Columbia, Missouri events of 1923 that form the basis of Scott Wilson's in-progress documentary A Voice Silenced are cut from the same horrific cloth as those that are said to have loosely inspired Harper Lee to write To Kill a Mockingbird.

Decorated World War I African-American veteran James T. Scott was working as a janitor at the University of Missouri in 1923 when he was rounded up and jailed on April 21st for the rape a day earlier of Regina Almstedt, a professor's 14-year-old white daughter. Even though he was innocent of the crime and sitting in a jail cell with the man who ostensibly confessed to the crime (Ollie Watson), Scott was broken out of jail by an angry lynch mob and hung to his death in the early morning hours of April 30th, from the city bridge under which the rape had occurred.

This past Friday, January 28th, Wilson screened 86 minutes of raw footage shot last fall at a special memorial and fundraising service for Scott, held at the Second Baptist Church. After the screening, which included a Q&A with Wilson, an ACLU rep and Douglas Hunt, a former professor at UM and author of a 2010 book about the crime, a woman approached Wilson with information about how to get in touch with one of Scott's relatives. It's all part of a process Wilson would ideally like to see culminate with the premiere of his finished documentary at the 2012 True/False Film Festival.

A victim of vigilante racism

“A big reason for the lynch mob was a front-page Columbia Tribune editorial written by Ed Watson,” Wilson tells FilmStew via telephone. “The basic gist of his piece to readers was, 'You need to take care of this.'”

Wilson, who has lived in Columbia since 1984, had not heard of the lynching until he came across it via the state's historical society in 2009. He has since become a fierce advocate for the matter, correcting erroneous information on Scott's death certificate last year and helping raise funds for a new headstone. This coming April 30th, his cameras will be rolling as a special procession marches from the Baptist Church to Scott's grave site to dedicate a new headstone.

“The father of the rape victim (Hermann Olmstedt) tried to stop the lynch mob from hanging Scott,” Wilson recalls. “But he was basically told that to step away or he would be next.”

While janitor Scott never got a 1923 trial or chance to present his rock solid alibi, the man who pushed him over the edge of the bridge, former city councilman George Barkwell, did. After 11 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury, Barkwell was declared not guilty.

Filmmaker, crusader Wilson

“The community has really engaged with my efforts to tell this story,” says Wilson, a long-time Verizon employee who took a six-month leave of absence in 2005 to work at the local public access TV station and has continued since with various short films and documentary projects. “There's a whole new level of dialogue going on about these terrible events, and that really was my original intention.”

“I climbed a lot of telephone poles for Verizon,” he continues. “I went out into the county and I know how this [film topic] smells. Racism, people dropping N-bombs, it's still out there.”

At the midway point with his James T. Scott documentary project, the 48-year-old Wilson says one of his next steps will be to find a writer who can help him shape the material. Although there are no photos of the lynching, journalism school students took copious notes that confirmed Barkwell was the one, under a full moon, who prevented an innocent World War I soldier from ever finding his Atticus Finch-like savior.

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