The First Black Sheriff of Coahoma County: John Milton Brown
Guest post by Dr. Bill Sutton
Bill Sutton has been leading Habitat for Humanity trips to Clarksdale and Coahoma County with groups of students for over 20 years, and has now retired here. With them, he spent years conducting archival research into the hidden history of John Milton Brown, the first black sheriff of Coahoma County.
Here is his story:
Though the Delta is widely celebrated as the home of the blues, we are now revisiting the context of that significant cultural development—why, in other words, did people "sing the blues?" And though it is also widely acknowledged that Coahoma County has one of the highest rates of racialized poverty in the nation, only sporadic attention has been paid to the historical roots of those issues either.
The poverty here is neither accidental nor incidental, nor is it in some way natural or God-ordained.
Delta poverty is partly the result of actions taken by individuals a long time ago—actions whose motivations were explicitly stated at the time and whose effects are far-reaching and long-lasting. Though this process (known in a horrible irony as “Redemption”) occurred throughout Mississippi and the South in the period following the Civil War, Coahoma County was the scene of one extremely instructive and pivotal moment in the revival of white supremacy and the development of racial injustice.
In 1873, the voters of Coahoma County—newly re-enfranchised ex-Confederates as well as legally protected freedmen—selected John Milton Brown as the first black sheriff of Coahoma County. Brown was a relative newcomer to the Mississippi Delta. He was born in KY and eventually moved to OH, where he studied for a time at Oberlin College, the first institution of higher learning in the country open to black students. At the end of the Civil War, like many young men his age, white and black, Brown moved to MS to carve out for himself a successful life, as the South struggled to rebuild after the devastation of the war. He first found work as a teacher in the Hopson School in the southern part of the county and then turned his attention to local politics, winning the office of sheriff handily in his first electoral contest.
The role of sheriff in those days was far more comprehensive and powerful than it is now. The sheriff was responsible for not only maintaining law and order but also for collecting the various taxes in the district, and, as such, held a particularly pivotal and powerful position, requiring the posting of a bond to insure political honesty. John Milton Brown and the largely black electorate that had selected him knew this well, as did the planters of Coahoma County, some of whom supplied this financial support for the new sheriff.
Brown’s election took place during a time of increasing turbulence in MS, as avowedly white supremacist Democrats sought to re-assert their power against a biracial Republican Party and the federal government which still had troops stationed in MS to maintain law and order. The leader of this effort in Coahoma County was James Alcorn—something of a surprising development because Alcorn had earlier been a leading figure in encouraging the political involvement of black voters after the war, many of whom gratefully repaid him by helping him become both Governor for a time and then later US Senator. But in October, 1875, as all of Mississippi was being wracked by white supremacist violence against the biracial administration of Gov. Adelbert Ames, Alcorn changed his political approach dramatically. First, he called for a general meeting of Coahoma County voters, to establish an alternative Republican Party ticket opposed to Ames and his supporters, for the upcoming fall elections. Then, though he presented no evidence for such claims, he charged Sheriff Brown with embezzling $4,725, planning to steal $7,000 more, and plotting to create a corrupt political ring through the election of his political henchmen. And after making these unsubstantiated charges, Alcorn went on to play his trump: the race card. Repeating an oft-used pretext for white violence against black voters, Alcorn asserted, again with no proof, that Coahoma blacks were arming themselves at Brown’s insistence, for the purpose of massacring the white citizens of Friars Point! When Brown rose to deny the charges and to defend himself, Alcorn threatened him personally, and tensions in the county, relatively low before the Alcorn allegations, heightened considerably.
Within days of this meeting, hundreds of well-armed white men from all over Mississippi, as well as nearby Arkansas, Tennessee, and even Alabama, led by ex-Confederate general James Chalmers (former right-hand man of the famous Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest), descended on the county seat, Friars Point. Their stated goal was to forcibly oust the allegedly corrupt sheriff, John Brown. In response to this threat, a group of poorly armed black men advanced on Friars Point, led by Bill Peace (an intimating ex-Union soldier and local sharecropper from a plantation near Alcorn’s) to defend Brown. They were met at Clark’s Bridge across the Sunflower River just south of Friars Point, where the better organized and equipped cavalry of the white group quickly dispersed their black opponents. But make no mistake, this was never meant to be massacre, and if there was any doubt about the real intent of the whites, Chalmers made it perfectly clear when he was heard by eye-witnesses to shout, “Do not shoot these negroes, boys, we need cotton pickers.” And, sure enough, within days, Alcorn happily reported that the black sharecroppers were back in the fields, performing what he believed were their rightful duties as poorly paid laborers.
To solidify their illegally-gained position, however, Alcorn and Chalmers had to make sure Brown was permanently out of the picture, so Brown’s life remained in danger. Despite his pleas to Gov. Ames for help in re-asserting law and order in the county, Brown found himself completely abandoned. Helped by sympathetic whites who disbelieved the Alcorn allegations like Gettysburg veteran Billy Maynard, Brown crossed the MS River and sought sanctuary in the swamps outside Helena, AK. Ultimately the deposed sheriff made his way to Kansas where he spent the rest of his life in public service to displaced freedmen who were fleeing similar white supremacist violence in the South, never to return to Mississippi. Alcorn and his henchmen, meanwhile, dutifully announced that since the sheriff had left the county, a new regime was in order, and, when the votes were cast later that month, Alcorn’s slate swept the election—an election largely ignored by Coahoma County’s previously active black electorate. And the so-called Friars Point “riot” marked the beginning of the end of black political participation in Coahoma County for nearly a century.
Though the story ends there in all the histories of Reconstruction in Mississippi, it turns out there is much more.
Five years after Brown’s ouster from Mississippi, he appeared before a Senate Committee investigating the alarming exodus of freedmen from the South. During that testimony, Brown recounted his version of the conflict, very different from the one disseminated by Alcorn at the time, and revealed that, after the Friars Point riot, he had ultimately resettled in Kansas, where he found work as the superintendent of the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association. In the years he spent working with that organization, Brown helped destitute freedmen, desperate to discover decent opportunities in the West, to find food, shelter, clothing, and employment until they could get properly established, and both benefactors and recipients praised his efforts. One admirer, after spending two days with Brown in an extensive tour of the operation, called the general superintendent “a colored man of unusual cultivation and executive ability” and commented about him, “We were favorably impressed with his earnestness and devotion to the cause of his brethren at the South; and with his efforts to elevate and assist to an independent position those who had come under his care.” His co-worker, Elizabeth Comstock praised Brown as “our very able and efficient superintendent” and hailed him as “second only to Fred. [sic] Douglas as an orator.” As far as Brown’s beneficiaries themselves were concerned, they could hardly express enough gratitude to the man who personified access to opportunity promised them but so long delayed.
Though John Milton Brown never returned to MS, his involvement with matters in Coahoma County did not end with his ouster and the question of his alleged corruption continued to follow him into Kansas politics when it was raised by his opponent in the race for state auditor in 1886. In refuting those charges, Brown produced a highly creditable witness, the Hon. J. B. Johnson (speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives), who testified that, after making two trips to Mississippi to check Coahoma County records, he could corroborate all of Brown’s assertions of honesty. Belief in Brown’s innocence in regard to the Alcorn charges that led to the Friars Point riot included Alcorn’s own son, M. S. Alcorn, and was repeated by a white observer in Coahoma County, Wilber Gibson, who similarly concluded, “Now John Brown was not a bad Negro, as I saw some of his checks to his bondsmen twenty years after he had made his escape across the river and out West where he had been successful. I doubt very seriously his getting [embezzled funds].” And local lawyer George Maynard, a recent college graduate in 1875 and a participant himself in the clash at Clark’s Bridge, recalled fifty years later that “most of us knew in Friars Point, that John Brown did not start the riot and was really opposed to it.”
In 1898, at the onset of the Spanish-American War, Brown was commissioned as major of the all-black 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry. After a successful stint in Cuba helping reorganize the war-torn country, he returned to his farm outside Topeka where his horticultural exploits won him renown all over the state. He died in January, 1923 and his obituary in the Topeka Plain Dealer summed up the accomplishments of this remarkable Mississippi exile. “Kansas and America loses a great man who was faithful and honest to a cause and Race. He was a born leader. . . . He took the light of Liberty to Mississippi after the Civil War. He was Sheriff of Coahoma Co. Miss. and stood up for human rights. . . . He came to Kansas and superintended the Barracks in North Topeka where thousands of colored men came from the south and had to be cared for by friendly whites who gave money, food, and raiment. Col. Brown was one of the leaders who saw to their welfare. If it had not been for him Kansas would not have had near the colored citizens. . . . He is the last of the Old Heroic Race spirited [sic] who lived and worked for a Race in Kansas. . . . He was of the Fred Douglas [sic] type. . . . He bought a farm . . . over thirty-five years ago which has grown in value every year since. Some say they thought it was too much money to go into a black man’s hands. . . . Peace to the ashes of the last great colored man of Kansas of the old school who left a history of doing things and not all talk.”
- Bill Sutton, October 5, 2020