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DeWitt: Time to mark Hernando's history of lynchings with a monument

Published Feb. 26, 2015

Some of the darkest pages in one of the darkest chapters in American history were written right here in Hernando County.

And now we need to own up to it.

We need to give Hernando's ugly past as a hotbed of racial violence the prominence it deserves — right on the lawn of the county courthouse.

I've previously written that Hernando had the highest per-capita rate of lynchings of any county in the country, based on the best information available. A new, more comprehensive analysis by the Atlanta-based Equal Justice Initiative, put Hernando's rate as second-highest.

This should not be read as a contradiction of the previous report. Lynchings, by definition, happen outside the legal system, meaning documentation is bound to be spotty. Different researchers use varying criteria to define a lynching; they consider different windows of time.

Given all that, it's remarkable these findings are so nearly the same that, in fact, their overall conclusion is identical:

"Hernando County is certainly an outlier," said Andrew Childers, an EJI staff attorney who helped compile the report. "It had such a small population and so many lynchings for that small population."

The EJI report, released earlier this month to widespread media coverage, started with the database that served as the foundation of the analysis I wrote about — Tuskeegee University's compilation of all known lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century. The EJI supplemented this with historical archives, newspaper accounts and a file on racial violence collected by Stuart Tolnay, a sociologist at the University of Washington.

Unlike some previous studies, the one from the EJI counted mass killings as lynchings. This is the main reason that Phillips County, Ark., came in with by far the most lynchings and the highest rate of lynchings between 1877 and 1950. It was the site of a massacre of about 200 black residents in 1919 after sharecroppers organized to demand fairer payments from white landowners.

So the total number of lynchings there dwarfs the 10 in Hernando. So, for that matter, do the 34 tallied in much-larger Orange County, which had the most total lynchings of any county in Florida. By the way, don't make the common mistake of viewing Florida, with its wide variety of cultural influences, as standing apart from the rest of the deep, segregated South. According to the EJI, the state had the highest per-capita rate of lynchings in the country, and, yes, Hernando had the highest rate in the state.

Still, based on all of the accounts I've read, I'd say the EJI significantly under-counted lynchings in Hernando.

But more important than the exact number is the larger, indisputable truth that, as the EJI report put it, Hernando was one of the Southern counties that were "particularly terrifying places for African-Americans and had dramatically higher rates of lynchings than other states and counties we reviewed."

Also important, the report said: erecting historical markers or monuments commemorating the loss of black lives, an action that "can begin to correct our distorted national narrative about this period of racial terror in American history."

So, our many enthusiastic local historians should stand with former Brooksville resident Jerry Bell, who has previously advocated for such a monument, and with local NAACP president Paul Douglas, who did so last week.

They should form a team to document every black person killed outside of the legal system in this county. We should list the names of these casualties and give them at least the prominence we give to an insignificant Civil War skirmish, the Brooksville Raid.

With the backing of the County Commission, we should make at least as big a deal about these victims of terrorism as we have the tragically misguided folks who fought for the cause of slavery, and whose efforts are honored with a statue of a young Confederate soldier. In fact, I think the perfect place for the lynching monument would be right in front of that statue. Right on the courthouse lawn.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.