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Death certificates of Hillsborough lynching victims omit crime. Time for change?

Robert Johnson was lynched by a mob in 1934, but his death certificate omitted that fact.
The death certificate for Robert Johnson, one of Hillsborough County's six known Black victims of lynching.
The death certificate for Robert Johnson, one of Hillsborough County's six known Black victims of lynching. [ Courtesy of FamilySearch.org ]
Published Dec. 4, 2020
Updated Dec. 4, 2020

TAMPA — Robert Johnson’s death certificate says that he was murdered on Jan. 30, 1934. That’s true, but it doesn’t reveal that he was lynched.

“He wasn’t just murdered,” Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera said. “He was lynched because he was Black. That should not be ignored.”

News archives say Johnson was kidnapped and taken to a wooded area in Tampa where he was shot in front of a mob of nearly 30 people.

Viera is now among those advocating for Johnson’s death certificate to be amended to include that he was lynched.

“I would strongly support this and would do my part as an elected official,” he said.

Viera sees this as part of his effort to erect a lynching memorial to observe the six known Black victims of lynchings in Hillsborough County from the 1850s through the early 1900s.

Related: A memorial for Hillsborough lynching victims is coming

“The memorial is about is making sure that we have a statement of culpability,” Viera said. “I think part of that holistic process includes amending the death certificate. He died from a lynching.”

Two of the county’s lynching victims are known only as Adam and Galloway. The others are John Crooms, Lewis Jackson and Samuel Arline. The Tampa Bay Times could not locate their death certificates.

If their death certificates exist and do not report that the men were killed by lynching, those too should be amended, Viera said.

Fred Hearns, who chronicles the Tampa Bay area’s Black history, agrees.

“If the death certificate says murder and not lynching, it is part of a coverup,” he said. “They wanted to hide what was really going on here. Lynchings were meant to terrorize a community — in this case the Black community. We can’t continue that coverup. We need to expose it.”

Related: Tampa photographer wants nation to know the story of ancestor who was lynched

The idea to change the death certificates was borrowed from civil rights activists in Warren County, North Carolina.

Two years ago, they successfully lobbied their state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics to amend the death certificates for Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams to reflect they were lynched by a mob in 1921 in the town of Norlina.

“It was covered up by officials for 100 years,” said Glenn Hinson, an associate professor of folklore and anthropology at University of North Carolina who was part of the effort to amend those death certificates.

“However small it might seem, the changed death certificate is a big deal. It is an acknowledgment of what really happened. The death certificates were shared by the families. There were a lot of tears.”

Florida’s Bureau of Vital Statistics website says that changing the cause of death requires documentation.

That exists for Johnson. On Jan. 30, 1934, the Tampa Daily Times headline reads, “Negro slain by lynchers in Tampa.”

This Tampa Daily Times edition tells the story of the lynching of Robert Johnson.
This Tampa Daily Times edition tells the story of the lynching of Robert Johnson. [ Times (1934) ]

Johnson was arrested on an accusation that he assaulted a white woman, but he was not charged. He was also accused of stealing chickens.

As he was being transferred to a city jail, Johnson was kidnapped by three men. His death certificate says the cause of death was “homicide” and that he was “shot by unknown parties” with a “pistol” in the “head and side.”

Ludd Spivey, president of Florida Southern College at the time, told newspapers that it was the worst crime committed in Florida within the last 150 years.

Related: ‘Those young people out in the street inherited our rage’

“We cannot forget or overlook that great injustice,” Hearns said. “The truth needs to be told. The memories of those lynchings, the terror they brought, are still being felt. Fixing those death certificates would be a good step toward healing.”

NAACP Hillsborough County Branch President Yvette Lewis said that the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County are need of a “day of reckoning.”

“We need to tell the full story about our history, even if it makes you uncomfortable” Lewis said. “Are the people ready to acknowledge our truth about how we were treated? We need to do more than hear the truth. We need the people to accept that it happened.”