Warning: The descriptions in this story and a photograph of a public lynching are graphic and disturbing.
Six years ago, a crew replacing light poles on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street found an engraved metal plate. It was a few feet off the ground, blackened with graffiti and hidden behind a planter bursting with bird of paradise, almost invisible.
“At this intersection, Nov. 12, 1914, John Evans a black laborer from Dunnellon was lynched,” it said, “condemned by a secret council of 15 of St. Petersburg’s most influential citizens, he was then turned over to a mob of 1,500 white residents and murdered.”
The plate ended up filed in a drawer at the city’s historic preservation office. No one knew who had placed it or when.
On Tuesday morning, the community unveiled a lynching memorial at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, marking the spot in front of a meat market where a mob hanged and shot Evans. They later sold postcards of the gruesome scene.
Dozens of local organizations worked for several years to recognize local lynchings. The Equal Justice Initiative, founders of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., provided the memorial.
Like hundreds of communities across the country, St. Petersburg had more or less erased this ugly history. Some history books gave it a single paragraph.
“This is not something we were encouraged to talk about publicly before,” said Kiara Boone, deputy director of community education for the Equal Justice Initiative. “It’s a powerful opportunity for the community to do some reflection. Ultimately, it creates a symbolic reminder of the work that communities need to do going forward.”
The record of what happened on that night 107 years ago is incredibly detailed. It emerges through accounts in the region’s newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Daily Times (today’s Tampa Bay Times), the St. Petersburg Evening Independent and the Tampa Morning Tribune.
The descriptive narratives depicting Evans’ lynching were devoid of shame or sorrow or horror. Instead, the authors provided justifications.
An attack and accusations
Mary Sherman, wearing a raincoat over torn clothes, struggled in the dark on a cool night.
Sherman and her husband, Edward, lived in a one-story bungalow surrounded by acres of shrublands on 30th Avenue North, next to the Atlantic Coast Line railroad tracks.
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She fainted several times, she would later say, before reaching her nearest neighbor, a half a mile away, around 3 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1914. The neighbor didn’t have a telephone, so he sent a boy to another neighbor, who sent his son to another neighbor, who called the town’s police chief.
The city of St. Petersburg was then just 26 years old, with one of the longest public waterfronts anywhere and a curio shop on Central Avenue with a live alligator called Old Bill. The world’s first commercial airline had launched from its pier on New Year’s Day.
At the time, it took a day by train to get to Tampa. Earlier that year, the St. Louis Browns arrived for the first time to play winter baseball before 4,000 fans at Sunshine Park on Coffee Pot Bayou, followed a year later by the Philadelphia Phillies. At least one newspaper devoted several columns to identify the tourists streaming in by train and automobile from all over the country to “winter” in St. Petersburg, then a town of about 7,000.
Mary Sherman ended up in Augusta Memorial Hospital, where she told a patrolman that she and her husband had been attacked the previous night by two Black men.
“I was sitting in the parlor making some fancy baskets for Christmas presents when I heard a shot, and then what I thought was running water,” said Sherman, according to the Independent. “I called out, ‘my God Ed, what is the matter?’ As I jumped up, a negro put the muzzle of a pistol close to my face and told me he wanted money. He told me he would kill me if I moved.”
She had $102 in her pocket, to help pay for work on their subdivision. She said she removed her skirt and threw it at him. The men grabbed the money, dragged her outside and hit her in the head with a metal pipe.
“There each of the two men assaulted her and beat her,” the Independent reported, “until one side of her face is in a jelly.”
Two years before, the Shermans had sold photography studios in Camden, N.J., and on the boardwalk at Wildwood, on the Jersey Shore, according to the Camden Daily Courier. They’d purchased the land in Florida with hopes to develop a subdivision called Wildwood Gardens. They billed it as a suburb of St. Petersburg.
They’d recently hired 11 Black workers to get the property ready for the winter tourist season.
An Independent city editor and columnist named Archie Dunlap, who called himself The Rambler, wrote about how the shooter had fired through a narrow window, blowing the top off Ed Sherman’s head while he slept with the covers tucked to his neck.
“The negroes who committed the terrible and foul crimes are said to be known,” the Independent said a day after the killing.
Mary Sherman said one was tall and wore a black felt hat. The other was short with a mustache, a description that supposedly matched Evans. Sherman first told her doctor that she recognized one of the voices as Evans’, the newspaper reported.
Evans, 35, stayed in a rooming house on 10th Street. Ed Sherman had picked him up a few weeks before in Dunnellon. He’d been Sherman’s chauffeur and used his carpentry skills to help build Sherman’s new garage, the Tampa Morning Tribune said.
A few days before the killing, Sherman had dismissed him and another man who was missing fingers on his right hand. Police concluded the next day that those two killed Sherman and ordered their arrests.
As news of Sherman’s death spread, Black residents emptied the streets, hiding in their homes. The city’s saloons closed, and the Black Patti musical comedy show at the Plaza Theatre was canceled. Mayor J.G. Bradshaw mounted the steps at City Hall and called for order.
But armed white men spread across the remote peninsula, travelling by buggy, horseback and auto, searching for Black men. Posses from Largo and Clearwater joined the search, developer George Gandy, (who built the Gandy Bridge in 1924) among them, Dunlap wrote in his Rambler column. The men shot at Black men, questioned them and searched their homes, abducting them and dragging some to jail.
Police finally located Evans and brought him to Mary Sherman.
She did not recognize him, and he was released.
A crowd had gathered at the hospital, and it jostled him as he left, questioning him. But he went to work at a property on the west side of St. Petersburg.
Later that day, a group of white men turned up a bloody shirt in the back of the 10th Street rooming house. A man said it belonged to Evans, then said he wasn’t sure.
An armed crowd of “young men and half-grown boys” gathered at City Hall, streaming to the hospital upon learning a group of men had again located Evans, who denied the shirt was his. The crowd took him into the woods and put a rope around his neck, lifting him off his feet, according to one account.
“After being subjected to all known methods and his continued denial that he knew anything of the crime, Evans was told to make his peace with God and to say his prayers,” the Tampa Morning Tribune wrote. “He said he had no prayers to say.”
The police chief arrived and took Evans back to the hospital. But Sherman’s doctor declined to let her see him again, saying a blow to the eye had “put her vision out of order.” She was on opiates and needed glasses, he said.
Evans was taken to the town jail. An article in the St. Petersburg Daily Times noted that a coroner’s jury had met that afternoon. It did not say why.
Vigilantes storm the jail
That night, a mob of several hundred broke down the back door of the jail with a crowbar. They pointed guns at the jailer and yanked Evans out onto the alley. A noose was placed around his neck, and the men fired their guns into the air, two volleys of several hundred shots.
Then they headed down Central Avenue. As they walked, men, women, even young children, some half-dressed, joined the procession. The street and sidewalks filled, followed by a line of cars, motorcycles, even a lit street car. “Turn out your lights,” someone yelled, and everyone did.
At Ninth Street, now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, “the leaders,” as the St. Petersburg Daily Times referred to them, turned left toward Gas Plant, the city’s Black neighborhood. They talked of burning Evans.
They sent a young boy with a rope climbing up a pole with an electric light. But the arm holding the light was not strong enough. They crossed the street to a tree, but the crowd complained it was too dark. They moved to a taller telephone pole at Second Avenue South, and a man climbed it with the rope and reached it over one of the cross arms, dropping it to the ground.
Evans clung to the pole as they pulled him up 40 feet. By this time, the crowd was estimated at 1,500.
A woman sitting in a car fired first, setting off a volley of more than 500 shots from the crowd, who pointed rifles, pistols and double-barreled shotguns.
“The body swayed from side to side,” the St. Petersburg Daily Times reported. “After the first few shots, it looked like a dummy.”
Warning: The photo below is graphic and disturbing.
The crowd retreated quietly. A policeman cut down his body the next morning. A city magistrate held an inquest. The mysterious coroner’s jury gathered to see the body and ruled Evans “died at the hands of unknown persons.”
A few days later, Sherman’s doctor said she was now sure Evans had attacked her. She called him “insolent” and “impudent.”
She soon left St. Petersburg for New Jersey, returning for the trial of the second man implicated in her husband’s murder. Ebenezer Tobin, 44, who was married and a preacher, would be executed a year later, hanged in front of 300 people following a trial. At his trial, Tobin said he was innocent and home with his wife that night. Mary Sherman testified she was sure Tobin had shot her husband, not Evans.
The story retold
Jon Wilson was a young reporter for the St. Petersburg Evening Independent when he took a class in 1982 from history professor Ray Arsenault at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg called Race in America. Arsenault suggested Wilson look into local lynchings.
It was supposed to be a class paper, but it ran in the Tampa Bay History journal.
In Days of Fear: A Lynching in St. Petersburg, Wilson attempted to unravel how a town billed as paradise had unleashed such violence. He concluded that the town’s leaders appeared to have a role in instigating what happened, ironically because they wanted to protect the town’s image.
Wilson, who retired from the St. Petersburg Times after 37 years in 2007, pointed out that just months before the lynching, the city had mailed out brochures to 50,000 people up north, hoping to boost its coming tourist season.
“All of this reflected the happy growth of an ambitious town, but there was an ailment,” Wilson wrote in his history paper, “a festering, a flaw. Like most Southern towns, St. Petersburg was strictly segregated by race.”
Black men had built the railway, the original pier and many of the houses in St. Petersburg, even the Detroit Hotel. But Black residents were confined to three neighborhoods. In 1913, only whites were allowed to vote for the town’s leaders, including Mayor J.G. Bradshaw, who said he “wanted to go into office as the choice of the white voters of the city and would rather not have the office than to rely on the negroes to win,” according to the Independent.
St. Petersburg was trying really hard at the time to not be a typical Southern town, said Arsenault, the professor who recently retired and wrote the book St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950.
Wealthy men from the north, who were used to racial segregation, ascended the town’s leadership, Arsenault said, mixing with Southern men who often exploited Black people.
A few days after a dedication to some of the city’s earliest pioneers at Pioneer Park in 1982, Wilson interviewed a white man named Luther Atkins, who had witnessed the execution. Atkins said some of the pioneers on the stage that day had been involved in Evans’ lynching. He refused to identify which ones.
Atkins recalled seeing Evans right before he was lynched.
“He knew that he was guilty, and he knew it was his time, and as far as I know I never heard him say any sound, and everybody was quiet walkin’ down the street,” Atkins told Wilson.
Atkins, in recounting the events, used a racial epithet to describe Evans, and he said he had carried a postcard of the lynching taken by a friend.
Wilson found a newspaper clipping in the Camden Daily Courier that widened his suspicion that some of the town’s most-respected citizens may have blessed the lynching.
Sherman’s partner, J.P. Walsh, had travelled to St. Petersburg to settle his affairs and return the photographer’s body back to New Jersey.
Walsh told a reporter that Evans had been tried by a group of residents and found guilty.
“Fifteen of the town’s wealthiest citizens met in secret session,” the Camden Daily Courier reported, attributing Walsh. “The negro was tried by the citizen’s committee. He was found guilty after every bit of evidence was thoroughly investigated.”
Wilson said there were signs Evans was innocent. He didn’t flee after being released by police the first time. He also refused to confess, despite being tortured.
Arsenault said city leaders remain unidentified to this day. “It would be virtually impossible to find out now,” he said, “but the fact that half the white community was complicit in this makes it less important to figure out if there was any leader.”
St. Petersburg newspapers never reported on a secret committee of 15 wealthy residents who voted to convict Evans.
First draft of history
The Evening Independent’s coverage of the lynching was more inflammatory, Arsenault said, but both newspapers embraced the white supremacy of the times.
“It should be remembered that John Evans was not a St Petersburg negro; he came here only a few weeks ago from Dunnellon,” wrote the Evening Independent. “It is usually the negroes who stray in here from the outside and stay only a short time who commit crimes. The bulk of the St. Petersburg negroes are honest, straight-walking people who are industrious and well-behaved.”
The St. Petersburg Daily Times carried an Ocala Evening Star editorial on the bottom of its front page, which noted Evans had spent time in prison for grand larceny in Marion County. “The officers here say he was a bad character, and it was probably safe for the people of St. Petersburg to lynch him on general principles whether he was guilty of the crime he was accused of or not,” the editorial claimed.
A number of local newspapers also fanned the racist inclinations of the city’s white population, insinuating that the black men had sexually assaulted Mary Sherman. A Tampa Morning Tribune story claimed she’d been “subjected to unmentionable indignities.”
“There’s nothing more inciteful than that,” said Gwendolyn Reese, 71, president of the African American Heritage Association and a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg newspapers and others, in the region and across the country, perpetuated racism through much of the 20th century, Reese said. They described the Gas Plant neighborhood where she grew up as a ghetto and a slum, though it was a thriving community with 30 businesses, 18 churches and people of all economic walks living close together because of segregation.
“They shaped the image people had about Black people, that they were lazy, insolent, violent,” Reese said. “What Black people had to do was start our own newspaper in order to see ourselves in a positive way.”
One Sunday afternoon in 2017, Jacqueline Williams Hubbard, a former public defender and city attorney, and others at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church discussed the idea of a lynching memorial in St. Petersburg.
The next year, they rented a van and visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. Hubbard, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, felt overwhelmed as she walked through the 800 steel sculptures hanging from poles, each vertical box representing a county with known lynchings and engraved with the names of those who lost their lives in this barbaric way.
For Pinellas County, she found two names: Evans and another man. In 1926, masked men kidnapped Parker Watson from police, leaving him dead on the side of the road. A third man, John Thomas, also will be named on the memorial. A mob shot him to death in 1905 after he was accused of killing the police chief.
The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit in Alabama that provides legal help to the wrongfully convicted, has documented almost 6,500 lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1950. Florida had the second-highest rate after Mississippi.
The organization believes there is a direct line from slavery and “racial terror” lynchings to the mass incarceration of Black men and women in prisons today.
“Understanding the history created the challenges we see in criminal justice institutions, that inspired us to launch this project,” said Boone.
Hubbard learned the Equal Justice Initiative had already fielded inquiries from other local organizations, including the African American Heritage Association. So she arranged for them all to meet at her church. Ultimately, 80 individuals and organizations became part of the application for Pinellas County’s memorial. Hubbard and Reese became co-chairs of the Pinellas Remembers effort. The city provided the land for the memorial.
“If nothing else, the horror they suffered should open up the minds of the people in the community that these things happened,” Hubbard said, “and we don’t want them to happen again, and that the remnants of this violence is still among us.”
A Straw in the Wind
About five years ago, Wilson, who has written several books about African-American history, heard from Jane McNeil, whose grandfather had been a white attorney in town at the time of Evans’ lynching, and later, a municipal court judge.
McNeil’s mother, Lily Bangert, a St. Petersburg socialite and a real estate broker, had written a fictional play called A Straw in the Wind, which describes the lynching. She hoped to produce it and had it copyrighted in 1981.
But a month later, when McNeil and her twin sister were 13, their father, a former bank executive in St. Petersburg, shot their mother and himself in their Snell Isle home.
McNeil, now 53, was eventually sent away to boarding school and now lives in Pennsylvania. She wanted to explore the story that so entranced her mother. In her mother’s play, her grandfather is a judge and a friend to the black community. He says Evans is innocent.
She and Wilson have teamed up to write a historical book about the lynching. She also has approached playwright William Leavengood, who teaches at Shorecrest Preparatory School and local universities, about adapting her mother’s play.
McNeil said she wants to finish what her mother started. She does not believe Evans or Tobin killed Sherman.
“If I can prove these guys innocent? I’ve done something right, even if it was 100 years ago.”
‘It wasn’t talked about’
As a little boy, the Rev. Pierre Loomis Williams recalls his father telling him about a man being hanged by a rope. Williams’ grandfather, Loomis Williams, a Black Seminole Indian, was an early resident of St. Petersburg and one of the founders of the city’s oldest black church, the Historic Bethel AME.
“Basically, it was an admonishment to me as a young black boy to be wary of institutional racism,” said Williams, a founding member of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. “That was a lesson to me, and it stayed with me, pretty much all my life.”
In Reese’s household, though, no one discussed what happened.
“We always knew, but it wasn’t talked about,” said Reese, who was instrumental in setting up the African American Heritage Trail in St. Petersburg. “We didn’t discuss it as a family.”
Many Black people fled the town after Evans’ lynching, heading north. The steamer Favorite departed the day after the lynching with 179 Black people aboard. Others hid in palmetto thickets, toting possessions in bundles, local newspapers reported.
Today, a U-Haul office and parking lot dominate the corner where Evans was lynched at the edge of the Gas Plant neighborhood. In the 1980s, the city forced property owners to sell, demolishing the neighborhood and building Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Everything that means something to us is usually taken, erased, moved, whatever the case may be,” said Bishop Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church.
He thinks St. Petersburg needs something more substantive to explain the history of black oppression in this community.
“If there is an honest desire to heal, then what was done needs to be admitted and memorialized,” Sykes said.
A research team led by the University of South Florida college of public health has been conducting a study of health outcomes in communities with known lynchings. Early findings show that counties with the highest rate of lynchings have lower life expectancies, lower high school graduation rates and incomes and higher violent crime, said one of the lead authors, Laura Kihlström.
“There’s no health equity without a truthful engagement with what got us here,” Kihlström said. “To name white supremacist violence as one of the root causes to many of the disparities that we see today.”
Omali Yeshitela, who started the African People’s Socialist Party in 1972, was born in the Gas Plant neighborhood as Joe Waller. He spent more than two years in prison in the late 1960s for pulling down, from a City Hall wall, a painting of black musicians with distorted features at the beach serenading white partygoers.
In an interview at the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg recently, he said his mother told him the story of a man who was hanged. A beautician who later became a nurse, Yeshitela’s mother told her son how white boys with guns ran through peoples’ houses.
“It wasn’t just John Evans,” said Yeshitela, 79, whose international Uhuru African movement seeks reparations for slavery and racial oppression in the United States. “It was happening everywhere. The whole community lived in a state of anxiety.”
He added: “It makes it very difficult to be an upstanding human being, to maintain a sense of dignity, because you achieve dignity at the expense of your life, certainly at the threat of your very life.”
Across the street a few months ago, Yeshitela pointed out, police shot Dominique Harris 38 times. Harris, a Black man, was killed after he shot a detective and tried to ram his car through a blockade of police cars.
“Colonial violence is imposed on the lives of African people systematically,” Yeshitela said. “John Evans was one example of it … It’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. It’s like air. You don’t think about it, you just breathe. And violence is like that. It affects our consciousness.”
Last spring, Arsenault, the historian, heard from a descendant of Evans.
The Tampa Bay Times also spoke with her briefly, but she declined further interviews. She said she was Evans’ great-granddaughter. She said Evans had a wife, kids. Two of his grandchildren are still alive, in their 80s.
The Pinellas Remembers coalition had asked her and her family to participate in the memorial. She said she’d reach out to family members, see if they wanted to come. A few weeks later, she emailed back. The family did not want to be involved. But they wanted to know: Why now?
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