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Pierce City, Missouri

An aerial view of Pierce City, with a wide road lined with trees, lawns and white buildings
"About three years ago I was at a conference, and there was a lady sitting next to me. I asked her where did she live, she said, 'Pierce City.' And I said, 'My dad's parents lived there 100 years ago.' She grabbed my hand and said, 'I'm so sorry.'"
—James Brown, descendant of Pierce City

A newspaper headline reading “Five Cities Have Taken the Law Into Their Own Hands and Expelled Every Colored Person From Their Limits: Peirce City’s Terrible Vengeance”

On August 19, 1901, white residents in Pierce City (spelled "Peirce City" until the early 1920s) ignited a 15-hour rampage with weapons stolen from a state militia arsenal and violently banished the town’s 300 black residents. Three black men were lynched, allegedly in response to the murder of a 23-year-old white woman. But evidence has since revealed that some townspeople wanted to follow the lead of nearby Monett, which had expelled its African American population seven years earlier. To explain what had happened to Pierce City’s black population, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the town as “Monettized.”

A century later, according to the 2000 Census, there were 1,385 people living in Pierce City, more than 96 percent of them white, 0.22 percent of them black. The history of black banishment remained a hidden one. Expelled residents were often too ashamed and unsettled to pass on their stories, and many of their descendants grew up without knowledge of the events.

A newspaper headline reading “Heinous Crime at Peirce City. A Young Lady Assaulted and Brutally Murdered. Her Throat Cut from Ear to Ear. Mob Law the Result. One Negro, Will Godley, Lynched and Two Others, Pete Hampton and Frank Godley, Riddle With Bullets and Their Bodies Burned in the House Where They Fell.”

Pierce City resident Murray Bishoff, editor of the Monett Times, has researched and written extensively about the racial expulsions. Bishoff first published a series of articles in the Times in 1991, the 90th anniversary of the lynchings and banishment. He created a related exhibit which is now housed at the Pierce City Museum and wrote a historical novel on the subject titled Cries of Thunder. He also paid the bulk of the costs for a marker in the town cemetery that commemorates the three lynching victims, where he holds a yearly vigil with his wife each August 19.

In June 2005, Mark Peters, the Pierce City mayor at the time, published an apology in the Monett Times in which he said the “exodus of nearly 300 African Americans... created a wound which is not healed yet, despite the passing away of the persons who gave in to human weaknesses of fear and hate.” Although Pierce City has designated June 5 as a day of remembrance for the banishment, Bishoff’s efforts often seem singular.

A major tornado destroyed and damaged much of Pierce City in May 2003. Nearly 90 percent of the historic downtown business district, as well as nearby residential areas, were severely damaged. Many of these buildings were later taken down, and the town is still trying to rebuild itself.

Sources

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