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A new museum will honor America's lynching victims, including those killed in Tampa Bay

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening April 26 in Montgomery, Ala., will feature 800 6-foot hanging monuments with the names of lynching victims from around the country. [Photo courtesy Human Pictures/Equal Justice Initative]
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening April 26 in Montgomery, Ala., will feature 800 6-foot hanging monuments with the names of lynching victims from around the country. [Photo courtesy Human Pictures/Equal Justice Initative]
Published Apr. 23, 2018

In May 1914, a Hernando County grand jury decided not to indict John Davis, a black man accused of attempting to assault a white woman in a hotel. But days after he was released from the Citrus County jail, Davis's body was found beaten with a broken neck in the Withlacoochee River.

Media reports speculated that a mob seized "the darky" and hung him from a bridge before throwing his body in the water.

And his fate was celebrated:

"Nearly everyone agrees that if the negro was not lynched he should have been and if he was, he got what was coming to him," the Tampa Tribune wrote.

More than a century later, Davis — and thousands of lynching victims like him — will be immortalized when The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration opens Thursday in Montgomery, Ala.

The 11,000-square-foot museum, built by the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based legal organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, will trace racism from slavery, through segregation and Jim Crow, to modern mass incarceration. The centerpiece is a memorial square with 800 hanging monuments, each 6 feet long, naming lynching victims in every county and state.

That history has rarely been acknowledged, much less memorialized. The brutal practice reigned long into the 20th century to intimidate and suppress blacks, as monuments were being erected that honored slave owners and segregationists.

As a call to action, the museum's six-acre park will have a field of identically engraved monuments waiting for each county to claim. Communities will have to take the initiative to retrieve their pillars, according to EJI staff attorney Jennifer Taylor.

"Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not," according to an EJI statement.

And there is much to confront. EJI documented more than 4,400 "racial terror" lynchings between 1877 and 1950 — killings by mobs for which no one was prosecuted. EJI did not count victims who were lynched after criminal trials. Even with that restriction, Florida had the second-most lynchings of any state on a per-capita basis, with 313 total — 46 in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk and Hernando counties, according to EJI.

Florida was especially violent in part because of the influx of settlers from other Confederate states after the Civil War, said historian Canter Brown Jr, a former professor of history at Florida A&M University.

Although Florida had a violent history with slavery before the war, the new settlers brought with them the attitudes and resentments of the Old South.

"There was this apprehension on the part of some whites that if we don't put blacks down and keep them down, they are going to rise up and take over," Brown said.

The rise of black politicians and officeholders during Reconstruction also posed a threat to the old way of life.

The state reinforced an existing propensity for violence when it adopted a poll tax in 1889, which disenfranchised most black voters, Brown said.

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"This is the era when Jim Crow really begins to harden in Florida," he said. "They picked up on these patterns of violence and repression from earlier times and really doubled down on them in a sense."

James Woodson, a porter at Polk County's Commercial Hotel, was lynched in 1914 after being accused of entering a white woman's room. In a story about his body being found in a swamp riddled with bullets, the Tribune described him as "a bad negro."

"Sometimes the newspapers virtually handed the rope to lynchers," said Florida historian Marvin Dunn.

Lynching was used not only to dehumanize individuals but to terrorize entire communities, according to EJI founder Bryan Stevenson.

"It was intended to send a message that if you try to vote, if you try to advocate for your rights, if you insist on fair wages, if you do anything that complicates white supremacy and white dominance and political power, we will kill you," he said in a recent 60 Minutes interview.

St. Petersburg NAACP Branch President Maria Scruggs said oppression has evolved into other forms.

Remnants are in the stigmatization of black men as dangerous, of black women as angry, of black leaders as incompetent.

"I just do not believe that as a country, particularly people of color of African descent have really been able to heal," Scruggs said. "While (lynching) may not exist in the 21st century, the tenants of lynching exist in the 21st century."

Brown said the lynching era gives context for politics today. He points to the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling overturning portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year and Gov. Rick Scott's resistance to a recent judicial ruling ordering the state to replace its "fatally flawed" method of restoring voting rights to felons.

"There has been a tendency in our country ever since the 1880s to want to say the period when we need to really focus on the race problem in this country is over," Brown said. "The reality, day-to-day, is that racism survives and thrives."

Stevenson, in his 60 Minutes interview, said the museum's aim is to show how modern issues evolved from our history. It can't be ignored, he said, that the disproportionate number of black men in prison has its roots in slavery. And it's not said enough.

"We want to tell the truth, because we believe in truth and reconciliation, but we know that truth and reconciliation are sequential," he said. "We can't get to where we're trying to go if we don't tell the truth first."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus. Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com. Follow @KirbyWTweets.

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