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Hillsborough County’s memorial to lynching victims is unveiled

The marker names the five Black men whose lynchings spanned 1892 to 1934, but focuses on Robert Johnson, the final victim.
Local politicians, community members and faith leaders unveil a historic marker along the Tampa Riverwalk honoring Robert Johnson, who was lynched in 1934, on Monday, in Tampa.
Local politicians, community members and faith leaders unveil a historic marker along the Tampa Riverwalk honoring Robert Johnson, who was lynched in 1934, on Monday, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Aug. 29|Updated Aug. 29

TAMPA — The story of Robert Johnson, Hillsborough County’s last Jim Crow-era lynching victim, is largely unknown because the tragedy was ignored and forgotten.

On Monday, a historic marker memorializing Johnson and Hillsborough’s four other lynching victims was unveiled on the corner of Doyle Carlton Drive and W Laurel Street, a busy pedestrian spot along the Tampa Riverwalk.

This is part of a “very difficult conversation we have to have about our history,” said Fred Hearns, the Tampa Bay History Center’s curator of Black history. “It is a positive step forward by telling and acknowledging the past.”

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, who led the charge to have the marker erected, echoed those sentiments at the dedication, saying he hopes it leads to dialogue about Hillsborough’s past racial sins and then to healing.

The lynch mob “thought his name would die with their violence,” Viera said of Johnson.

Tampa Council Member Luis Viera speaks before the unveiling of a historic marker along the Tampa Riverwalk honoring Robert Johnson, who was lynched in 1934, on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in Tampa.
Tampa Council Member Luis Viera speaks before the unveiling of a historic marker along the Tampa Riverwalk honoring Robert Johnson, who was lynched in 1934, on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

The marker names the five local victims, whose lynchings spanned 1892 to 1934. There is the man known only as Galloway, John Crooms, Lewis Jackson and Samuel Arline, but it tells Johnson’s story in detail.

In 1934, Johnson was arrested on an accusation that he assaulted a white woman.

“The next day, Tampa law enforcement officers confirmed Mr. Johnson’s innocence,” reads the marker. “However, 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 ... Mr. Johnson’s body was found shot to death near the Hillsborough River at Sligh Avenue.”

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.

“If such brutality is the final consequence of civilization,” he said, “then I don’t care for it.”

A Tampa committee that includes Hearns, Viera, state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the Rev. Justin LaRosa of Hyde Park United Methodist Church and Robert Blount of Abe Brown Ministries championed the marker in conjunction with the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, which seeks to memorialize lynching victims throughout the nation.

The committee collected soil from near the location where Johnson was lynched. They then jarred and donated the soil to Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Alabama, where it is part of an exhibit of around 800 other jars containing soil from racial lynching sites.

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According to the marker, between 1877 and 1950, Florida had “at least 319 victims of racial terror lynchings,” each carried out “to instill fear into the Black community in order to maintain the racial hierarchy of white supremacy.”

Local politicians, community members and faith leaders unveiled a historic marker along the Tampa Riverwalk honoring Robert Johnson, who was lynched in 1934, on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in Tampa.
Local politicians, community members and faith leaders unveiled a historic marker along the Tampa Riverwalk honoring Robert Johnson, who was lynched in 1934, on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
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