Thursday, September 3, 2020

How a White Rapist Came To Be Regarded as Black: The Lynching of Andrew Springer

By Fatme Myuhtar-May, archival manager for Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives

Before I took the job as an archivist in the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives (NEARA) in Powhatan, I was not intimately familiar with Lawrence County’s history. That is why I listened to every story from local patrons attentively and with great interest. It was from them that I heard about a location known as “Nigger Hill” in the small nearby town of Black Rock. A Kum & Go gas station now stands in that spot on Highway 63, where one takes the turn toward Powhatan. “This is where Black people used to live,” Jeanette Darris of Black Rock told me.1 

In fact, as Blake Perkins discovered in an article of the Arkansas Gazette,2 the number of African Americans living in Black Rock in 1894 was about 300,3 which was a significant number for a town with a population of 1,000 in 1889, according to Glinda Hill Stuart.4

At that time, Black Rock was a newly minted railroad boom town. Many people of color came to the area for work in sawmills, factories and timber industries. The Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railroad Company built a line through the area. Timber abounded and could be floated down the Black River to distant mills and markets. The town of Black Rock – including its African American population – grew and flourished in the late 1800s. Today, the town has a population of about 600 with no Black residents.

So, where did the African Americans of Black Rock go, if they once had a community of their own? As Jeanette Darris heard it, the “whitecaps” a term the Arkansas Gazette in 1894 used to describe Ku Klux Klan–like vigilantes went door to door and posted notes to the effect of: “Leave or we will burn your house.” Because Jeanette did not elaborate on the exact time period, I presumed this happened in the 1920s when the KKK spread nationwide and left it at that.

One day, another patron and his daughter walked in, asking to use some archival materials. While I was photocopying the materials for them, conversation veered toward the Black community that once lived in Black Rock. What happened to them? Why did they leave? Did the KKK drive them away?

“No, that is not what happened,” the patron said. “What happened was that one of them raped Mrs. Montgomery and that was the reason why [white] people wanted them out.”

Indeed, a Mrs. W.R. Montgomery of Opposition, Arkansas, (a now defunct community in Sharp County), was raped in 1887, but a “white tramp,” as one local newspaper at the time described him, committed the outrage,6 not a Black man.

However, in 1889, only two years after the incident, Goodspeed’s Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas (relying on the largely unverified accounts of white Northeast Arkansas residents), defined Springer as “a negro,” without mentioning his name. Yet, there is no doubt that Goodspeed refers to Springer. The reference comprises a single sentence; the paragraph, which contains it, reads as follows:

We have a few legal and some illegal executions of criminals within the territory [Lawrence County]. During the early days of its existence, as originally constituted [originally, it encompassed much of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri], when courts and officers were few, the old settlers often took the administration of justice into their own hands, and for murder, rape, arson, and horse stealing, usually selected certain ones to run down the perpetrators, who, when caught, were brought back, were hung without the use of court or jury. For lesser crimes, offenders were tied, stripped and flogged. Hanging and flogging thus constituted the only modes of punishment inflicted by Judge Lynch and his associates. This manner of acknowledging crimes ceased generally when the Territory was divided into several counties, and courts and officers became more numerous. However, only a few years ago [two years earlier], a mob composed of individuals outside of the county, forcibly took from the jail in Powhatan, a negro, incarcerated therein for the charge of committing rape, and hanged him [emphasis added].7

Springer’s was the only case of lynching that was ever remembered or recorded in Lawrence County,8 and the second of only two individuals to be hanged in the county.9 In addition, it happened only two years prior to the Goodspeed’s publication. Thus, there is no doubt that both the archival patron’s and Goodspeed’s accounts reference Springer. I can, therefore, conclude with a fair amount of certainty that it is only in local lore (Goodspeed’s account included) and in much later accounts of his lynching (e.g., Richard Buckelew’s 1999 list of “Lynchings in Arkansas,” see Footnote 8)11 that the racial identity of Andrew Springer became muddled: remarkably, from white he became Black.

Richard Buckelew’s List of Lynchings
 in Arkansas, 1860-1936
That Andrew Springer was white is beyond any doubt. That Andrew Springer came to be regarded as Black in the local account of history is also beyond dispute, as contemporaneous newspaper accounts and court records reveal. The radical transformation of his racial identity from white to Black is indicated by Goodspeed’s publication of a locally- generated narrative published in 1889, just two years after the event and the persistent nature of this transformation is indicated by its appearance in Buckalew’s “Lynchings in Arkansas.” Buckalew relied on two newspaper articles – the Little Rock-based Daily Gazette of May 22, 1887, and the Memphis Appeal of May 23, 1887 to document Springer’s death—but did these identify him as Black?

A search for “Andrew Springer May 1886,” in returned more than 430 hits. One of them was a Memphis Daily Appeal article from 23 May 1887.12 This article, however, makes no mention of Springer’s racial identity. Furthermore, there is no match to any Little Rock Daily Gazette article from May 22, 1887. I found two articles regarding Springer published in the Daily Arkansas Gazette, but neither references his race, nor dates back to May 22 (instead, they are included in the May 21s and May 29 issues, respectively).

Of all the news publications in that report on the rape and Springer’s subsequent lynching between May 14 and May 29 of 1887,13 I studied in detail more than 100 of the top sources listed. Yet, not a single one of them describes him as a Black man. In fact, one of the articles published in the Argus-Leader of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from 26 May 1887 directly points to his being white in the very title: “Lynching a White Man: Murderers in Arkansas Forestall the Law and Kill a Prisoner.”14 The article – which is one of the more detailed ones – identifies him by name in its first sentence.

A“Lynching a White Man,”
Argus-Leader of May 26, 1887
 Moreover, a further search of reveals hundreds (if not thousands) of cases of crime news from the same time period (many from the same year), where the perpetrator’s racial identity is clearly stated if he/she was Black, especially in the case of rape. On the other hand, only in rare instances is the race of criminals mentioned if they were white – the Argus-Leader article being one such example. Examples of the sensational crime-related headlines suggest that newspapers were not reluctant to identify Black in the headlines or within the first sentences of the text:

§ “A Villainous Negro Hanged to a Telegraph Pole [in Nebraska]”
§ “Short Walk Made of a Negro Fiend by a Georgia Mob”
§ “A Negro Ravisher Lynched [in Alabama]”
§ “A Negro Thief Taken from Jail and Brutally Beaten by a Mob [in Little Rock, Arkansas]”
§ “A Negro Rape Fiend Taken from Jail and Lynched [in Kentucky]”
§ “The Five Negro Fiends Who Murdered Young Good Lynched at Yorktown [South Carolina]”
§ “A Colored Cook Cooked [for shooting at a waitress in Colorado who lived]”
§ A North Carolina Lynching [of a ‘Burly Negro’]”

Whereas labels, such as “fiend”, “brute” and/or “rapist,” among others, were sometimes used in reference to white criminals (including to describe Springer on a handful of occasions15), they were applied to Blacks for any crime with almost no exclusion. The use of such labels was especially abundant in the case of rape – a crime regarded as particularly abhorrent and committed by individuals that were “less than human.”

Rape was a crime so widely ascribed to Black males in that time period and subsequently for which the ultimate punishment was extrajudicial lynching (also known as mob law or Judge Lynch) that a number of newspapers, including the Missouri-based Douglass County Herald from the turn of the 20th century, termed it a “Negro Problem.” “Every colored man should realize that the worst enemy of his race is the negro criminal, and above all the negro criminal who commits the dreadful crime of rape,” stated the Herald from Dec. 6, 1906. The article continued: “The greatest existing cause for mob law is the perpetration by the Blacks of the crime of rape, a crime which … [is] even worse that of murder [emphasis added].”

On one hand, the article in question argues in favor of access to good public education for “negroes” in order to make them good citizens, alongside white Americans. On the other hand, the language of the article is one of agreement with the premise of the “negro criminal” – particularly the “negro rapist” – and its proposed solution is to reform the “negro criminal” through education. In fact, the “negro rapist” assumption was so commonplace that descriptions, such as “she was approached by a burly negro … and she saw at once the furious passion that blazed in the brute’s eyes,”16 were the norm rather than the exception.

It is not surprising, then, that the St. Louis Globe-Democrat from June 4, 1892, echoing the reality of widespread lynching of Blacks, especially in the South and especially for the alleged crime of rape, stated, “Negro lynching for rape is not determined by latitude. New York has just done this, and so would Massachusetts or Vermont under the same circumstances.”17

Notions of Black criminality and the “negro rapist” only intensified by the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan’s influence spilled out of the South and spread throughout the United States. The use of violence and murder – especially lynching – against African Americans, continued to grow. Whereas the first Klan emerged in the South during the late 1860s in response to the emancipation of slaves following the Civil War and the political enfranchisement of Black males, it was quickly suppressed by the federal authorities.18 Yet, feelings of resentment continued to linger under the surface in the South.

It was therefore not surprising that the second Klan emerged in Georgia in 1915, to a large extent fueled by D.W. Griffith's 1915 feature film The Birth of a Nation, which was seen across the United States. In the 1920s, therefore, the “Black rapist” and the “Black criminality” stereotypes were reaffirmed and spread nationwide. Even though the Klan’s wanton engagement in violence and murder of Blacks, Jews, immigrants and even women (including a high-profile rape and murder trial against D.C. Stephenson, the powerful grand dragon of the Indiana Klan19) generated a large media and societal backlash, leading to its demise by the late 1920s, KKK-inspired ideology did not die out.20

Proof of that can be seen in the “third Klan’s” emergence after 1950s, in opposition to the Civil Rights movement, although its activities were localized and largely isolated. To this day, however, white supremacist ideology remains firmly entrenched in segments of American society, and notions of Black criminality remain viable. Within this context then, the muddling of Andrew Springer’s identity in Lawrence County’s lore, as well as the persistent belief that he was Black, becomes more understandable, if still unjustified.

Next month, NEARA will start piecing together the story of Andrew Springer's crime and lynching in Lawrence County using NEARA's vast collection of documents and database availability.

[1] Unrecorded conversation with Jeanette Darris of Black Rock, Powhatan, Lawrence County, 2019.

[2] Arkansas Gazette, “Whitecaps: A Labor Race War Seems Imminent in Lawrence County,” Arkansas Gazette, January 17, 1894, 2.

[3] According to Blake Perkins, “this is the only known statistic that offers any insight into the size of the black population in the first sixteen years of the city’s existence [after 1894, when Black Rock was incorporated].” See Blake Perkins, “Race Relations in Western Lawrence County, Arkansas,” Southeast Missouri State University Press, not dated,, accessed September 9, 2019.

[4] Glynda Hill Stuart, “History of Black Rock,” in Mother of Counties: Lawrence County, Arkansas – History and Families, 1815-2001 (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 2001), 24.

[5] I omit the names on purpose.
[6] Sharp County Record, May 18, 1887. It was Vesta Smith of Back Rock who discovered the article and provided me with a printed microfilm copy of it. However, I have been unable to independently locate it in or on microfilm yet.

[7] Goodspeed, Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas (Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889), 766.

[8] See Richard Buckelew, Appendix I: Lynchings in Arkansas: A Comprehensive Listing, in “Racial Violence in Arkansas: Lynchings and Mob Rule, 1860-1930/” (Ph.D. diss, University of Arkansas, 1999), 223-254. Available at, accessed September 18, 2019

[9] Steven Saunders, interview by Fatme Myuhtar-May taken in Powhatan, AR, May 5, 2019. Audio 58:40.

[10] Ibid.
[11] On p. 231 of his list, Buckelew also identifies Springer as black (see Footnote 8).

[12] Last searched September 17, 2019.
[13] A search of returned 435 hits, the overwhelming majority of which do reflect the case of Andrew Springer.

[14] Argus-Leader. “Lynching a White Man: Murderers in Arkansas Forestall the Law and Kill a Prisoner.” Argus-Leader, 26 May 1887, 1,, accessed September 17, 2019.
[15] Memphis Avalanche, for example, called him “an inhuman fiend” in an article about the crime. See “An Inhuman Fiend: Mrs. Montgomery Outraged during Her Husband’s Absence,” Memphis Avalanche, 18 May 1887,, accessed August 24, 2019.

[16] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 26 Aug 1887, 1,, accessed August 24, 2019.
[17] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 4 June 1892, 4,, accessed August 24, 2019.

[18] See Rory McVeigh, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), passim; Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, “The Great Mongrel Military Despotism: The First Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Chinese Crusade,” in Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 54-69.

[19] See Famous Trials, “D.C. Stephenson Trial (1925),” UMKC School of Law,, accessed September 19, 2019.

[20] See Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, “100 Percent American: World War I-Era Repression and the Second Ku Klux Klan,” in Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 85-103; Charles Quarles, “1915—A New Image,” in The Ku Klux Klan and Related American Racialist and Anti-Semitic Organizations: A History and Analysis, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1999), 53-76.