On January 12, 1931, a mob of over 2,000 white men, women, and children seized a Black man named Raymond Gunn, placed him on the roof of the local white schoolhouse, and burned him alive in a public spectacle lynching meant to terrorize the entire Black community in Maryville, Missouri.
Days before, a white school teacher had been found murdered and suspicion fell on Mr. Gunn, who was arrested.
Many Black people 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 Mr. Gunn’s arrest, police took Mr. Gunn to jail in a neighboring county due to threats of lynching. 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 in their custody, police and other officials almost never used force to resist white lynch mob’s 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 almost 2,000 white men, women, and children gathered outside the courthouse. Despite the previous attacks and threats of violence, the local sheriff did not request assistance from the National Guard. With little resistance from local law enforcement, and 60 members of the National Guard at ease in an armory one block from the courthouse, Mr. Gunn was seized by the white mob and marched four miles down the road to the white schoolhouse. The mob chained Mr. Gunn to the rooftop of the building, doused the building in gasoline, and burned him alive as a mob of over 2,000 people watched and celebrated.
This public spectacle lynching was meant to terrorize the Black community of Maryville. The practice of terrorizing members of the Black community following racial violence 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 Black community.
In the days following Mr. Gunn’s lynching, more than 20% 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.