A history of lynching too close to home
The noose, a symbol of intimidation, is appearing in workplaces.
A keynote address by Bryan Stephenson in October 2016 was the impetus that led the Newtown Conservation Historic District team and volunteers on a deeper dive for information about our area’s lynching history.
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Research materials were scant when we began the comprehensive study of African American history in Sarasota. Oral history interviews with Black pioneers saved us by filling gaping holes.
We finished Phase 1 of the initiative before Stephenson, executive producer of the film “Just Mercy” and founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (known as the lynching museum) spoke to Sarasota lawyers at an annual benefit dinner in 2016. Stephenson’s Montgomery, Alabama, museum that acknowledges racial terrorism in America wasn’t built yet.
Somewhere between the main course and dessert, an unsettling feeling set in when Stephenson described America’s lynching history. How had we missed this subject when there are 4,400 “racial terror lynchings” documented during the post-Reconstruction era from 1877 to 1950?
The June 14 column of historian Jeff Lahurd described KKK activity in Sarasota, but it mentions “no records of lynching history.” Our area has lynching history, but it’s hard to find. A thesis paper by a University of South Florida student listed eight African American men who were lynched in our area before Sarasota split from Manatee County in 1921. Six in 1896 were never identified, according to the study.
Henry Thomas was lynched March 8, 1903, according to “100 Years of Lynching.“ Will English, murdered on July 4, 1912, was the final lynching victim reported in the Manatee River Journal.
It is likely that there are more because Florida was a hotbed of racist activity from 1865 to 1877.
Locally and nationwide, African Americans faced deadly waves of violence by “bands of whitecaps (segregationists) who shot at and drove them out of the county.”
Volunteer researcher Hope Black, a nontraditional University of South Florida student, called her contacts and afterwards combed the college data base and found the August 2009 thesis “A Bare Bones History: Lynching in Manatee County.”
Why are the atrocities endured by African Americans in the bicounty area buried, difficult to find, hidden, missing from history books and never taught in area classrooms? The powder keg that has exploded into protests spilling into the streets of the nation and abroad are a result of America’s inability to confront and understand racial terrorism and reconcile grievances. Local Black history stories are difficult to tell but must be accessible.
Today, with racial injustice at the forefront of the national conversation, the work of Newtown Alive and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition (SAACC) is more important than ever.
Newtown Alive’s tours and initiatives are an effort to fill gaps, jumpstart conversations and change policy makers’ priorities to achieve parity. Some leaders, but not enough, have familiarized themselves with the resources created. The lynching story is described on Marker No.
7 at Greater Hurst Chapel A.M.E. Church, and retrieving artifacts from the Montgomery museum to honor our lynching victims is necessary.
SAACC will expand our imprint by covering the past (including lynching history), present and future. We will host museum exhibitions about untold and forgotten stories and unforgettable influencers.
“Beaches, Benches and Boycotts” in partnership with the Florida Holocaust Museum highlights the Civil Rights Movement in Sarasota, Tampa and St. Petersburg. Selby Botanical Gardens will co-present an exhibit about “The Highwaymen” landscape artists with related programs. A traveling exhibit “Right on Time” chronicling the Negro Baseball League will be presented. Its author, John Buck O’Neil, grew up in Newtown, was mentored by educator Emma E.
Booker and founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Spokespersons from the private and not-forprofit sectors are making bold statements about their support of African American life, history, heritage, the arts and culture. I hope their pronouncements are authentic and not knee jerk.
SAACC will need community support in the form of exhibition space, partnerships, funding and collaborations to present successful and transformative programs. There’s a demand for Black history content in all demographics as America’s hunger to learn about racism suddenly shifts. It’s happening through a worldwide movement in the midst of a global pandemic. Both have our full attention.
For Sarasota, we must create a dedicated place where Black history, art, heritage and culture can be celebrated. To support this undertaking, go to www.thesaacc.com.
With our help, a new diverse and inclusive vision for our region’s future will become a reality.
Vickie Oldham, CEO of Vickie O Heritage Productions, Inc., is a local historian associated with Newtown Alive!
and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition and part of the Newtown Conservation Historic District team.
A sculpture depicting slavery stands on the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. [PHOTO BY RICK HOLMES]