On this dayApr 15, 1903

White Mob Lynches Black Man and Attacks Black Neighborhoods, Forcing Every Black Person Out of Joplin, Missouri

On April 15, 1903, a mob of several thousand white people in Joplin, Missouri, battered down the wall of the city jail, forcibly removed a 20-year-old Black man named Thomas Gilyard, and lynched him in broad daylight. The mob hanged Mr. Gilyard from a telephone pole two blocks from the jail. 

Mr. Gilyard had been accused of killing a white police officer. Many Black people were lynched during this era based on an accusation of murder. During this era of racial terror, mere suggestions of Black-on-white violence could provoke mob violence and lynching before the judicial system could or would act. The deep racial hostility permeating society often served to focus suspicion on Black communities after a crime was discovered, whether or not there was evidence to support the suspicion, and accusations lodged against Black people were rarely subject to serious scrutiny. Here, though Mr. Gilyard maintained his innocence, he was offered no protection by local officials, and was lynched before any trial could take place. 

An immense crowd of white people assembled to participate in this lynching, with some climbing up trees and to the rooftops of nearby buildings to witness the event. Brutally lynching Mr. Gilyard did not mark the end of their violence. Unsatisfied by killing Mr. Gilyard, the mob was intent on destroying the lives of the hundreds of Black people who lived in Joplin. 

First, the crowd demanded that a local white man, named “Hickory Bill,” who was in jail for attacking a Black person, be released, which city officials willingly accommodated. 

The white mob then gathered on Main Street and drove all of the Black people from downtown into a segregated Black district north of Joplin. There, the white residents of Joplin launched a devastating terrorist attack on the Black community—they robbed and burnt down their homes, shot and stoned the Black people they came across, and forced every Black person from the district out of the city. They blocked the local fire department from extinguishing the flames on the burning homes, ensuring that the Black community would have nowhere to return. 

Determined to force every Black person from Joplin, the mob then traveled to another Black district south of the town and found that all of the Black residents had already fled out of fear. The mob proceeded to burn their homes down too. It is unknown how many people were killed by the white mob’s ruthless violence. 

During the era of racial terror lynching, white mobs regularly terrorized Black people with violence and murder to maintain racial hierarchy. These acts of lawlessness were committed with impunity by mobs who rarely faced arrest, prosecution, or even public shame for their actions. Racial terror violence in this era displaced entire Black communities and hundreds of thousands of Black people fled as refugees from violent campaigns that used fear and intimidation to ensure white supremacy and racial hierarchy.

Thomas Gilyard was one of at least 60 Black people lynched in Missouri between 1865 and 1950. Learn more about how over 6,500 Black women, men, and children were victims of racial terror lynching in the U.S. between 1865-1950 by reading EJI’s reports Lynching in America and Reconstruction in America.

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