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Tampa lynching memorial’s location, wording is set

This summer, a historic marker will be installed on the Tampa Riverwalk near the Fortune Taylor Bridge.
Robert Johnson was Hillsborough County's fifth victim of a racial lynching.
Robert Johnson was Hillsborough County's fifth victim of a racial lynching. [ Times (1934) ]
Published Mar. 31|Updated Apr. 3

TAMPA — Robert Johnson was acquitted of assaulting a white woman in January 1934.

But a mob wanted him punished and Johnson, a 40-year-old Black man, became Hillsborough County’s fifth victim of a racial lynching.

“His story is part of a painful history that is often ignored,” Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said. “We often don’t tell stories like this, but we should.”

This summer, Johnson’s story will become more public when it is etched into a historic marker installed on the Tampa Riverwalk near the Fortune Taylor Bridge.

“We wanted a place where it was going to be most visible,” said Viera, who is part of the initiative that began in 2019 and includes the Tampa Bay History Center’s curator of Black history Fred Hearns, State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the Rev. Justin LaRosa of Hyde Park United Methodist Church and Robert Blount of Abe Brown Ministries. “We endeavored to put it somewhere where everybody would see it and, God willing, learn from it.”

One side of the marker will detail how Johnson was killed.

“Rather than releasing Mr. Johnson, law enforcement officials turned Mr. Johnson over to an armed white man in the middle of the night who had no legal authority,” reads a portion of the approved text. “This man was the brother of the Hillsborough County constable and falsely claimed to be a ‘deputy constable.’

“A few hours later, he reported a mob lynching of Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Johnson’s body was found shot to death near the Hillsborough River at Sligh Avenue. A coroner’s jury concluded that no mob members could be identified and also that the constable’s brother was not responsible for the murder.”

The other side of the marker will provide a broader history of racial lynchings in Florida.

“Between 1877 and 1950, thousands of African-Americans were the victims of lynching and racial violence in the United States,” part of the approved text says. “Florida had one of the highest per-capita rates of Black victims lynched by white mobs, including five known lynchings in Hillsborough County: Galloway (1892), John Crooms (1893), Lewis Jackson (1903), Samuel Arline (1912) and Robert Johnson (1934).”

Galloway’s first name is unknown.

Viera, Hearns, LaRosa and Blount also recently collected soil from near where Johnson was lynched. They then jarred and donated the soil to The Legacy Museum in Alabama. Founded by the Equal Justice Initiative, the museum, according to its website, focuses on the legacy of slavery in the United States and is located on the site of “a former warehouse where Black people were forced to labor in Montgomery.”

The Hillsborough soil is now part of an exhibit of around 800 other jars containing soil from racial lynching sites.

The names of Hillsborough’s racial lynching victims are also etched into a steel slab that is part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Also in Montgomery, it documents the “more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between Reconstruction and World War II,” according to its website.

The Equal Justice Initiative provides each represented city or county with their piece of the monument. That piece will then be replaced with a replica at the Montgomery site.

Viera said the Hillsborough group is in the process of obtaining theirs. It will then be installed in a to-be-determined location.

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“We tend to hide from these stories,” Viera said. “This initiative does the opposite.”

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