A well-liked barbecue man, Officer Wallace Lawson had just been re-appointed for his second year as the Jefferson City police officer assigned to the Lafayette Street neighborhood when he was killed in the line of duty in 1934.
He was the city's first police officer killed in the line of duty, making him also the first African American officer to die on the job.
At the time, the national trend was to assign Black officers to Black neighborhoods, and police officers in Jefferson City were appointed more for their political influence than their training and experience. After his election as police chief in April 1933, John Bruner appointed Lawson and 11 other police officers, only two of whom had prior experience.
In January 1934, Lawson supervised the "big rabbit barbecue" served by the police department. He was "one of the best-known barbecue cooks in Central Missouri and was in demand for big affairs. He had few equals in barbecuing meats and probably officiated at more affairs of that kind than any of his race in this section," the April 2, 1934, Jefferson City Post Tribune said.
Three months later, he was shot twice with a 12-gauge shotgun at the home of Central Hotel bell boy James Turner at the corner of Chestnut and Miller streets.
At about 1 a.m. April 2, 1934, at Bill's Café on Lafayette Street, Turner became boisterous and attacked a waiter. A woman put a stop to the wrestling, and Lawson entered when he heard the commotion. Turner argued with Lawson, who slapped him and said, "I am tired of your bullying around here."
The policeman told Turner to go home or he would go to jail. Turner crossed the street, cursed Lawson, then ran home. Lawson pursued Turner.
According to others at the Turner home, he "said it was either him or the policeman, and they were going to have it out." Turner grabbed his shotgun and shells, left the home out the back door and came around to the front as Lawson approached the front door.
Accounts differ about what happened next. The next day's newspaper said Turner fired first, with a shot glancing off the policeman's belt; then Lawson drew his revolver and advanced at Turner firing three rounds before Turner's fatal shots. At trial, Turner said Lawson fired first.
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Lawson was 56. He was survived by his wife, Sadie, five children and his mother, Sarah. His father had been shot to death in 1888 near Taos. Then, in 1911, Lawson was acquitted in circuit court for shooting a man named Davis in self-defense.
"He was a good policeman. He was calm when a steady hand was needed and handled his difficult beat with credit to the department. He had the respect of the people of his own race and made the ideal policeman," Chief Bruner said.
Lawson was the victim of the city's fifth homicide within a year.
Nearly 600 people, including many white people, crowded into the small Church of God on Locust Street for Lawson's funeral.
"I have never known a truer man. Or one who was more devoted to his duty and to his friends than Wallace Lawson. I was closely associated with him over a period of 20 years," Mayor Means Ray said.
Turner had fled the scene by freight train to Kansas City, but he returned in a few days and turned himself in. He was held at the Missouri State Penitentiary until his trial. The defense proposed Lawson was a bully and had frightened Turner into believing his life was in danger. The prosecutors noted Turner had been in trouble with the law before.
At the end of May 1934, Turner was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. "Jurors said they thought Lawson erred by not arresting at the restaurant and Turner erred by not staying in the house," the newspaper reported.
Simultaneously, the City Council dug its heels about approving former Mohawks Baseball star Booker Mason to replace Lawson. The opponents "declared the experiment has never been successful" and thought a white man would get better results, the newspaper reported.
The council opposition proposed the Black community was the most opposed to having a Black police officer. But Lincoln University Professor J.W. Damel met with the City Council immediately following that report urging Mason's appointment and providing a petition in support. Mason served the department for 25 years, until he was killed in a car accident.
Officer Lawson is buried at Longview Cemetery. He also is remembered inside the Jefferson City Police Department with a photograph, alongside Chief of Police John H. Bruner, who was struck by a vehicle while directing traffic on U.S. 50 in January 1936. Their names also appear on the recently refurbished Missouri Law Enforcement Memorial on the north side of the Missouri State Capitol and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Michelle Brooks is a former reporter for the Jefferson City News Tribune. She has been researching Jefferson City history for more than a decade and is especially interested in the first century of Lincoln University.