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Remembering Coos County’s black history; event to memorialize Alonzo Tucker’s lynching in 1902

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Lynching in Marshfield - event site for ceremony

Pictured is the location where a public memorial observance of the lynching of Alonzo Tucker was held Feb. 29.

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COOS BAY — The death of Alonzo Tucker probably became inevitable the moment Lizzy Dennis made her accusation.

Dennis, a white woman, reported that Tucker, a black man, had raped her. The next morning — Sept. 18, 1902 — Tucker’s body was hanging from Marshfield’s 7th Street bridge.

An inquest would find his death to be justified. No one ever was prosecuted.

Soil from the scene of Tucker’s death will be collected in jars on Saturday, Feb. 29, as part of a project to commemorate America’s lynchings. Marcia Hart, executive director of Coos History Museum, explains the project:

“To me the importance of this day is to recognize a past historical event in the context of the times. One that is shocking to imagine that it occurred in our community, and one that is part of a greater story about the unjust treatment of the Indian Tribes and minority pioneers in our state.”

The museum plans to use some of the soil in a future exhibit about racial injustice in Oregon and on the South Coast. Hart hopes the ceremony will be a step toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

At the turn of the 20th century, black people were tolerated but not welcomed in Oregon. The 1900 Census listed 36 “Negroes” in Coos County. Some worked in coal mines, others on Pullman cars. The 1910 Census noted that those 36 “Negroes” recorded in 1900 had dwindled to 17.

Most of what we know about Tucker appears in a 2008 book by Andie E. Jensen, “Hangman’s Call: The Executions and Lynchings of Coos County, Oregon 1854-1925.” Jensen reports that Tucker worked as a bootblack in a local barber shop. Claiming to be a former prizefighter, he had just opened a gym.

Dennis told Sheriff Jack Carter that Tucker leaped out of some bushes and raped her. Carter arrested Tucker, gossip spread, and a mob approached the jail. When the sheriff tried to move Tucker to safety, Tucker escaped.

He spent the night under the docks. He ran the next morning, but a rifle bullet hit his thigh. A doctor later said the wound was lethal, because the bullet almost severed an artery.

When the dying Tucker tried hide in a store, he was shot in the back. The Marshfield Sun reported on the subsequent inquest:

“… no evidence as to the identity of the parties responsible for the death of (the) Negro fiend was elicited. It was shown in evidence that the Negro was a fugitive from justice, and that the shooting was undoubtedly done by parties who were assisting the officers in his re-capture.”

At the inquest, the jury concluded that no crime was committed.

For several days, the five local newspapers published opinions and rehashes of the incident, whipping up resentment against blacks. Real information was scarce until 1974, when Dinah Adkins, a reporter for The World, interviewed three elderly men who had seen the incident as boys.

“I was not over 20 feet from Tucker when they shot him,” Martin Steckel recalled. “I was about seven years old. They accused him of assaulting a woman. But I don’t believe he ever did.”

Harry Walker told Adkins that Tucker ran for exercise every day heading from Marshfield toward Libby. “I remember that and so does Oscar (Gulovsen). Tucker was a Negro. He was a prizefighter and a bootblack there in town. Well, he’d run every day for his exercise from Marshfield towards Libby. They lynched him. They claimed that he was a ‘rapin’ a woman… Well, I’ll tell you what I heard now. I think Oscar heard the same. He was an innocent man. He’d run up there and he’d meet her up there at a certain place – somewhere at the side of the old cemetery on down there somewhere.”

“And Dr. Tower was the doctor at Libby, the company doctor. Well, they’d been out in the brush and they come back onto the road, and Dr. Tower came with his horse and his buggy to go on to Libby,” Walker said. “And she saw she was caught, so to clear her skirts, she claimed he attacked her.”

Walker went on to tell of the evening’s events. “Us kids was a playin’ downtown and I was up on Broadway right in behind the Eldorado store… And we heard they was agoin’ to lynch ‘im … And they were marching four abreast with Winchester rifles.” That must have been when Sheriff Carter decided to take Tucker to safety. Tucker got away from the sheriff and hid under the docks during the night. The next morning Tucker tried to run, but someone shot him.

Steckel recalled being in the store where the wounded Tucker tried to take refuge:

“… Tucker came in the little door right up the stairway. I run up purt near the top, and he came in there. And the blood was just flyin’. And he said as he come in the door, I’ll never forget him, he said, ‘Lord have mercy on a colored man.’”

“That man was dead when they hung ’em,” Walker added. “They tied a rope around his neck and kicked him off the bridge.”

Within a week, newspapers reported that black people were leaving the area.

“When that Negro was lynched up there … the Negroes pulled out,” Walker said. “They was afraid, scared, and left. And there were not very many ever came back any more.”

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