Historical marker unveiled for Levi Harrington, lynched April 3, 1882

On a chilly, misty December afternoon, there was a gathering at a park overlooking the site of an 1882 lynching of Levi Harrington, an innocent African American man, to remember him through a service and the unveiling of a historical marker. Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. who read a letter from the Missouri Bishops calling for an end to racism, is seated at the end of the front row. (Marty Denzer/Key photos)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — An innocent African American man fell victim to a white mob angered over the shooting death of a white police officer April 3, 1882. Seized and lynched by the mob over the Bluff Street Bridge, Levi Harrington was mostly forgotten for over 130 years, except by his family and a listing in the Kansas City Police Dept. Memorials for the officer shot that day.

Several years ago, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Black Archives of Mid-America, and the Missouri NAACP, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty joined forces to research, remember and memorialize the 60 documented racial terror lynchings in Missouri. On Dec. 1, about 50 people gathered at West Terrace Park on the bluffs overlooking the two-lane bridge that was once the Bluff Street Bridge.

Following a ceremony, Reconciliation through Remembrance, which included music, the reading of a proclamation issued by Kansas City, MO., Mayor Sly James declaring Dec. 1, 2018, Levi Harrington Day, a recitation of the poem Lynch Family Blues by poet Glenn North of the Black Archives of Mid-America, remarks by Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., a reading by the winner of a high school essay contest, and a healing ritual facilitated by Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould of Missouri Faith Voices, the historical marker was unveiled.

Bishop Johnston read a letter, “A Call for Racial Reconciliation from the Missouri Catholic Conference,” signed by the four bishops of Missouri —Archbishop Carlson of St. Louis, Bishop Johnston, Bishop McKnight of Jefferson City and Bishop Rice of Springfield Cape Girardeau — that says in part, “By publicly recognizing that lynching occurred here, and permanently marking these horrific acts as events of historical significance, we can begin the process of acknowledgment and atonement that is necessary for us to move forward as a people dedicated to the idea that all men are created equally in the image and likeness of God.”

The marker states that Levi Harrington, a well-respected African-American man in his 30s, was married with five children. He worked as a porter and laborer and was described by a former employer after his death as a “faithful…honest man” who “was sober and industrious, saved his money and cared for his family.” The marker continues, “On April 3, 1882, a police officer was fatally shot in Kansas City and suspicion was immediately directed toward black residents. During this era, deep racial hostility burdened black people with presumptions of guilt, often resulting in accusations that were unfounded and unreliable. As Mr. Harrington made his way through Kansas City that day, he was stopped by police and arrested. Despite the lack of evidence to indicate his involvement in the shooting, an angry white mob quickly formed and grew to several hundred people intent on lynching Mr. Harrington. The mob forcefully seized Mr. Harrington from police custody and lynched him by hanging him from the Bluff Street Bridge and shooting him. Although newspapers reported that Mr. Harrington was innocent of the accusations against him, no one was held accountable for the lynching of Levi Harrington.”

The day after Harrington died, the true culprit in the shooting death of Officer Patrick Jones, George Grant, was arrested and tried four times for murder. Grant was offered a plea bargain in 1884 that resulted in his serving just two additional years in prison for manslaughter.

The historical marker honoring Levi Harrington and decrying the lynching. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

Bishop Johnston said later, “It is a sign of God’s goodness that on a site where citizens of Kansas City stood and watched a man’s life end at the hands of a lynch mob, 136 years later, on the same site, citizens of this city, made up of different racial and religious backgrounds, come together to remember that man and commit to never allowing evils that spring from racism to happen again.  It is a sign of reconciliation through remembrance. “

The historical marker is the first such memorial placed to honor those whose lives were lost to racially motivated violence. Lynching was a form of terrorism geared to intimidating black people and enforcing racial hierarchy and segregation. More than 4,000 documented lynchings took place in the U.S between 1877 and 1950. There were 60 documented lynchings in the state of Missouri with one in Jackson County—Levi Harrington. He is forgotten no longer.

The ceremony concluded with vocalist JaLeesa Gillepie singing “Ooh Child,” a 1970s Chicago soul song by the Five Stairsteps.

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Sunday
December 16, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph