Brenda Whitfield has heard stories of lynchings in Alachua County since being in middle school.
The lifelong Newberry resident recalls her great-grandmother’s tales of people being hanged at “Lynch Hammock,” the site of several long ago extrajudicial killings in the city.
“She used to tell me about what they did to those people and how the people treated each other,” Whitfield said.
Even decades later, some members of the African-American community often don’t speak about the lynchings due to strong emotion or fear.
“Nobody wants to talk about the past, but as you move on, you lose any bit of truth left in that history,” Whitfield said.
This month, the U.S. Senate approved a bill that would make lynching a federal crime after more than a century of such attempts to outlaw the act.
Over the past year, community leaders, experts
Number of lynching cases more than doubles
In January, the Alachua County Historical Commission reported 43 known cases of lynchings between 1867 and 1926, more than doubling the previous count of 21.
County leaders asked the historical commission for a deeper look in hopes of memorializing those victims lynched here. The actual number of lynchings could be much higher because of undocumented cases and gaps in historical coverage, according to people researching the matter.
“You cannot talk about the history of Alachua County without talking about lynching,” said Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Florida.
Lynching finds place in the national spotlight
In April, the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama, displaying the history of slavery and racism in America.
The enslavement of African-Americans lasted for centuries and was followed by black codes, convict leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws and other forms of systematic oppression that have come to be known as “slavery by another name.” Lynchings in particular deprived countless U.S. citizens of their constitutional right to a trial by jury.
Experts discuss truth and reconciliation
On May 28, a panel discussion was held at the UF College of Journalism and Communications to discuss an initiative to document and report Alachua
County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson, who is white and had been leading the truth and reconciliation process, suggested having Commissioner Charles Chestnut, who is African-American, at the forefront of the effort. The pair met several weeks later to begin that effort.
“It’s up to all of us to figure out that (process) that will allow us to properly memorialize, so that we will never forget those things that we should not forget,” Hutchinson said, “but also give us the foundation to move forward.”
They hope to
have the names of the 43 lynching victims put on display in The National
Memorial for Peace and Justice, also in Montgomery. In order to be
included, Alachua County needs to properly account for racial lynchings that
occurred, Hutchinson said.
Hilliard-Nunn said during the panel discussion that was important moving forward to always consider how past lynchings are connected to the present.
“They’re not just saying ‘Let’s just do a monument to do a monument,’” she said. “They are doing it because that (racist) ideology is still taking place in 2018.”
A plan is set in motion
In June, Hutchinson proposed a 10-step plan for the county’s truth and reconciliation initiative.
The goal: Showing how a local government can recall and repair its history of racial injustice.
The proposal outlines a plan for extensive research into the county’s past; town hall meetings for people to share their stories; and developing an online archive of documents, images and recordings related to what Hutchinson calls a “bleached history.”
At the end of the process, the county aims to request a lynching memorial slab from the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project in Montgomery.
Newberry is the first to address the process
On July 17, the Concerned Citizens of Newberry group held a meeting at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center to discuss their community’s involvement in the memorial process.
“This is not to embarrass those who might’ve been involved in some of this treatment,” Chestnut said. “It’s to talk about it so we can heal and move forward.”
Judy Hasan, 65, the group’s president, recalled a story about a black man accused of merely looking at a white woman. A mob of men found him and beat him. He was never seen again.
“It’s been a lifetime of hearing these stories,” she said.
Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said that the city would work with residents to help expose the truth of the city’s history as well as to educate the public about what happened there.
“There are ugly truths to recognize in ourselves and the community,” Marlowe said. “Some of this ugliness still exists today.”
Newberry discusses its dark past
On Sept. 20, another community meeting was held at Newberry City Hall to discuss lynching.
Author and historian Janis Owens told the story of the county’s most infamous case of lynching, commonly referred to as the Newberry Six.
In August 1916, Boisey Long was accused of stealing hogs. He reportedly shot and killed Deputy George Wynne, then ran off. Long’s family was accused of helping him escape.
They were all lynched without a trial.
One of the men, James Dennis, was shot. The other five victims were hung from a tree in an area known as “Lynch Hammock,” at the corner of Newberry Lane and County Road 235.
Thousands of people were said to have come from all around to see them hang and to touch the bodies. Some citizens vowed to never speak of the lynchings again.
“You could hang someone because of their color?” Angel Hunt, 17, a distant cousin of Boisey Long, asked at the meeting. “I’m glad it’s being brought up again and not brushed under the rug, even though it did take 100 years.”
County reviews truth and reconciliation
On Nov. 13, the County Commission met to hear public comments about the next steps in the 10-step truth and reconciliation process. Alachua County’s Racial Justice Task Force stated that this could process will take decades, even centuries, to complete.
Members of the task force worried, however, that the timeline would slow the county from getting its memorial recognition and placement at the EJI remembrance site in Montgomery.
Newberry continues to reconcile with its past
On Nov. 18, the Newberry City Commission partnered with Christ Life Fellowship Church to host a dinner and sermon in Lois Forte Park as part of the truth and reconciliation process.
“The churches in my community really do have the pulse of my community, so it was a great way and a great place to start,” Marlowe said. “It’s the message of community and unity and love that is important, and my churches are on the forefront of spreading that message.”
While the process may take years to complete, the county vowed to continue moving forward.
The next Newberry event is scheduled for Jan. 21, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
The county commission plans to meet again in January to discuss its next steps in the journey.