Levi Harrington was lynched on April 3, 1882, in the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Missouri.
That may seem like a long time ago, but after 136 years, the aftermath of racial terror lynchings reverberates today. That's why lynchings — and Harrington — are being remembered in Kansas City with a new memorial.
The story of Levi Harrington provides a compelling example of how racial terror lynchings were routinely carried out prior to Jim Crow.
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.
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,” says Sanders.
Shortly after Harrington’s lynching, the actual culprit was arrested and put on trial.
Harrington’s lynching will be remembered in a ceremony Saturday with the placement of a memorial marker in West Terrace Park overlooking the West Bottoms. He will be one of the first Missouri lynching victims to receive a memorial (a plaque installed in 2016 in Columbia, Missouri, recalls the 1923 lynching of James Scott). The West Terrace plaque is the result of a collaboration between 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.
Staci Pratt, who leads Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, is 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,” says Pratt.
Pratt says that race is the biggest correlation, both in who was chosen for lynching and who gets the death penalty.
“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 says 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.”
Outside of the south, Missouri had the second highest number of lynchings during period between slavery and the Jim Crow era.
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 says 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 says.
Poet Glenn North, who is joining the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center after several years at the Black Archives of Mid-America, says 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 says, "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.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that this plaque would be the first erected to a lynching victim in Missouri. There is another plaque, installed in 2016, recognizing a lynching victim in Columbia, Missouri.
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.