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'This Is What We Know': Newberry Begins Reckoning Over Lynching History

The Newberry Six lynching victims are buried here at Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church. (Clarisa Melendez/WUFT News)
The Newberry Six lynching victims are buried here at Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church. (Clarisa Melendez/WUFT News)

Horror. Sadness. Guilt. Outrage. Shame. Fear.

The dim room filled to the brim with emotions as citizens of Newberry called them out. They came together to learn, understand and reconcile a horrible, somewhat secret past. Even 102 years later, the lynchings commonly referred to as the Newberry Six haunt this close-knit community.

Thursday night was Newberry’s first step toward reconciliation and restorative justice.

These are the events that occurred in August 1916: A man named Boisey Long was accused of stealing hogs. There was no evidence, only suspicion, and that was enough. Deputy George Wynne and Dr. Lem G. Harris went to arrest Long and search his home for evidence.

This is where accounts start to vary.

“This is what we know. This is what I know, and I can tell,” said author, historian and keynote speaker Janis Owens. “In some of these instances I’m going to give you both sides because there are two different sides to theories of what happened.”

According to the news reports from the time, Long had a pistol strapped to his leg when Wynne and Harris entered his home that night. Long was said to have resisted arrest and fired six shots at Wynne and Harris, four of which found Wynne’s abdomen and eventually killed him.

Long told a different story. He had been getting dressed as the deputy had instructed, and as he went to move a shirt, Long uncovered his pistol. Wynne shot him, and Long returned fire before running into the night. Wynne died en route to the hospital.

The events that followed are chilling but not uncommon to the era in Alachua County, which has the highest number of documented lynchings of any Florida county.

Long’s family was rounded up to “interrogate.” A mob accused his family of helping Long escape, among other alleged crimes. There was no trial, but each of them was lynched, including Mary Dennis, who was said to be pregnant.

The bodies hung from oak trees next to the main road for more than a day for everyone to see, and plenty of people were said to have visited to see the horror. Some citizens took an oath, vowing to never speak of the lynchings.

Angel Hunt, 17, distant cousin of Boisey Long, heard this story when she was in the fourth grade. As she grew older, the reality of the events shocked her.

“You could hang someone because of their color?” she asked. She represents a new generation that has a chance to not only embrace the town’s history but also use it to create a brighter future.

“I’m glad it’s being brought up again and not brushed under the rug, even though it did take 100 years,” Hunt said.

In July, the community decided to engage in this process, and last night’s event was the first on the path to reconciliation.

“We’re hopeful that from tonight we can have a beginning. That we can get community involvement to form a committee to help guide us through the steps in the upcoming months,” Mayor Jordan Marlowe said.

The next is scheduled for Nov. 18. Marlowe is calling every pastor in town to give a sermon about healing, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness and anything else that might help Newberry heal. After these sermons, the congregations will gather in Lois Forte Park for a community dinner on the grounds.

Marlowe and his fellow community members are moving cautiously forward in this process, knowing there is no guide and that the community will have to decide what truth and reconciliation means for Newberry.

“How do you lead a community through a reconciliation of Jim Crow Era laws? And how do you heal that?" Marlowe asked. "I’ve looked for that book on Amazon and it doesn’t exist.”

Clarisa Melendez and Chris O'Brien contributed reporting.

Rebecca is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.