Erastus Brown, July 10, 1897
In the pre dawn hours of July 10, 1897, an armed mob of white men brutally hanged Erastus Brown, a black husband and father of two, from a willow tree near the Bourbeuse River Bridge in Union, Missouri. Mr. Brown was no more than 20 years old at the time of his death. The armed lynch mob of approximately forty prominent farmers traveled to Union on horseback from Old Virginia, a community located between the cities of Villa Ridge and Gray
Summit. Though several community members in Union either saw or interacted with the mob as they made their way into town, no one was willing to identify members of the mob to local authorities after the lynching of Mr. Brown.
According to reports, Mr. Brown left home on July 2, 1897, headed for Gray Summit to retrieve medicine for his sick infant child. Mr. Brown had been raised in Gray Summit, and he, his wife, and his parents were known as respectable people in the community. While on his journey, Mr. Brown was accused of hitting a white woman in the head with a stone. Shortly after the accusation was made, Mr. Brown was placed in custody at the local jail in Union. During this era, the deep racial hostility that permeated Southern society burdened black people with a presumption of guilt that often served to focus suspicion on black individuals and communities after crimes were reported, whether evidence supported that suspicion or not. White peoples’ allegations
against black people were rarely subject to scrutiny, and the suggestion of black-on-white violence often sparked mob violence and lynching before the judicial system could or would act.
White residents from Old Victoria terrorized Mr. Brown for over a week as he remained in jail following his arrest. On July 5, 1897, a lynch mob of about 20 men attempted to abduct him from the jail, but failed. Lynch mobs regularly displayed complete disregard for the legal system, often abducting black people from courts, jails, and out of police custody. Law enforcement officials rarely used force to resist lynch mobs intent on killing black people and sometimes participated in mob violence, leaving no guarantee of custodial protections for black people accused of crimes.
Undeterred by their previous failed attempt, a larger mob returned during the early morning hours of July 10, 1897 determined to lynch Mr. Brown. Several members of the community engaged or crossed paths with the mob on its way to the jail. A local reverend encountered the mob on his way to a service in Labadie, but he did not report it to the authorities until the next day. Another
white man later shared that, from his bedroom window, he counted 40 men in the armed mob coming to town to finish “Black Rastus.” The mob arrived in Union around 2 o'clock in the morning, passing by the Union Hotel located a block from the jail, on their way through town.
The mob cut the fire alarm wires and tampered with the electric switch- board, leaving the streets completely dark. A group of revelers from the Union Hotel bar soon became spectators, including a train crew that intentionally decided to stop in Union because they were aware that something was stirring. Other members of the crowd, which also included the hotel owner’s son and at least two local county judges, waited to see what would take place as the mob approached. Once the mob was in sight, one of the train crew members let the crowd know when the mob arrived, and several people in the crowd mingled withthe mob as they made their way towards the jail.
Once at the jail, the mob went directly to the cell where Mr. Brown was held. After less than ten minutes, the mob shot off the lock to the cell, sparking cheers from spectators; the lock hit Mr. Brown as it ricocheted off the door. Members of the mob began to cheer and howl as they entered the cell with lanterns, and the crowd of spectators stood by as the mob seized their victim.
Two white prisoners held in close proximity to Mr. Brown later recalled that he spent the entire evening prior to the abduction praying, singing religious songs, and asking others to pray for him, also. Once Mr. Brown was seized, he reportedly became silent.
The mob bound Mr. Brown, forced him from the cell, and prepared to parade him down Union- St. Clair Road toward the Bourbeuse River Bridge. White crowds followed the mob as it made its way out of town, while others remained at the courthouse to await news of the lynching. At the bridge, the mob hanged Mr. Brown to a willow tree towards the edge of a nearby wheat field. At least 100 citizens of Union, including the County Prosecutor, were present near the bridge to watch Mr. Brown’s lynching. No reports indicate that anyone attempted to use force or legal authority to intervene.
By daybreak, newspapers reported, the entire town had gathered in the courthouse square. Many residents expressed surprise that the lynching, referred to as a “bee” by white residents, was not delayed until daytime to be held as a Fourth of July Celebration.
Following Mr. Brown’s unlawful killing, the local sheriff stated that neither he nor his deputy were making an effort to investigate or identify the lynchers because it was “no use.” Instead, he left the investigation up to the Grand Jury that would convene in September. When it did convene, the Grand Jury interviewed a number of witnesses but ultimately announced that they would not indict. Like nearly all lynching victims, Mr. Brown was killed without legal intervention or protection by a white mob that was not held accountable for his lynching.
Tragically, the Browns’ sick infant child — whose need for medicine had first inspired the travels that resulted in Mr. Brown’s arrest — died two days after the lynching, in his mother’s arms, as she traveled to notify Mr. Brown’s father that he had been killed.
Erastus Brown is one of more than 60 African American documented victims of
racial terror lynching killed in the State of Missouri between 1877 and 1950.
The National Memorial in Montgomery Alabama contains over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the US where racial terror lynchings took place. It is our mission to bring home the Franklin County Monument from an adjoining park which contains identical monuments waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the US have confronted the truth of this terror, and which parts have not expressed this willingness to face the past.