On this dayJan 14, 1931

Black Residents Flee Maryville, Missouri, After Lynching

Image | Flickr, Associated Press

On January 14, 1931, black residents of Maryville, Missouri fled the town after the lynching of Raymond Gunn, an African American man. Mr. Gunn was burned to death by a mob in Maryville on January 12th, after he was arrested and accused of killing a white schoolteacher; he was lynched before he could be tried or defended.

Many African Americans were lynched across the South under 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 Southern 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.

Following his arrest, police took Mr. Gunn to jail in a neighboring county due to threats of lynching. Lynch mobs still formed and attempted to seize Mr. Gunn from jail, so officials transported him to another prison with reinforcement from firemen and a tank company of the Missouri National Guard. At the peak of racial terror lynchings in this country, it was not uncommon for lynch mobs to seize their victims from jails, prisons, courtrooms, or out of the hands of guards like in this case. Though they were armed and charged with protecting the men and women and custody, police and other officials almost never used force to resist white lynch mobs intent on killing black people. In some cases, police officials were even found to be complicit or active participants in lynchings.

On the morning of Mr. Gunn’s arraignment, a mob of about two thousand white men, women, and children gathered outside the courthouse. Despite the previous attacks, the local sheriff did not request assistance from the National Guard. With little resistance from local law enforcement, and sixty members of the National Guard at ease in an armory one block from the courthouse, Mr. Gunn was seized by the mob and burned on the roof of the schoolhouse. In an attempt to defend the National Guard's inaction, the commanding general insisted that state law prevented him from intervening without prior approval from the sheriff.

The practice of terrorizing members of the African American community at random in the wake of a racial dispute was common during this period. Southern lynching was not only intended to impose “popular justice” or retaliation for a specific crime. Rather, these lynchings were meant to send a broader message of domination and to instill fear within the entire African American community. In the days following Mr. Gunn’s lynching, more than 20 percent of Maryville's black population fled the town in fear. Despite investigations initiated by state officials, no one was ever arrested or convicted of any crime related to the lynching of Raymond Gunn.

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