It’s an ugly part of American history that is now being acknowledged in a very public way.
Historical markers are going up across the South and in other states to memorialize the Black people, men and boys mostly, who were tortured and lynched by white mobs after being accused of crimes and even insults to white sensibilities, such as sending a love letter to a white girl.
In late August, a group led by Tampa City Council member Luis Viera unveiled a marker on the Tampa Riverwalk that tells the horrid story of Robert Johnson, who was taken by a mob in 1934, shot and hanged from a tree at Sligh Avenue and 50th Street. Police investigated claims that he had accosted a white woman and found no evidence of that. The other side of the marker lists the names of four other Black men lynched in Hillsborough County between 1892 and Johnson’s murder. The other victims were a man known only as Galloway, John Crooms, Lewis Jackson and Samuel Arline.
“During the end of Reconstruction to the 1930s, Florida was at the very top with per capita racial lynchings throughout the United States. And a lot of people don’t know that,’’ says Viera. “We do have a very violent history.’’
He tells of the case of Willie Howard, a 15-year-old boy who was killed in 1944 in Live Oak for sending a love letter to a white girl. His hands and legs were bound, and he was given the choice of being shot or jumping into the Suwannee River. He chose the latter and drowned. And of Claude Neal in 1934, accused on circumstantial evidence of raping and killing a white woman. He was tortured and hanged by a mob in Jackson County.
“Neither of those two individuals have markers for them,’’ says Viera.
In the case of Neal, “They took his burned, tortured body and they hanged it on a tree next to the courthouse in 1934,” Viera says. “There is no marker for him, but about 20 feet away from him is a Confederate memorial.”
Viera was inspired by the memorial to victims of lynchings in Montgomery, Ala. The Peace and Justice Center, a creation of the Equal Justice Initiative that opened in 2018, has compiled a list of more than 4,400 victims of lynchings throughout the South and other states that the Equal Justice Initiative’s researchers uncovered. In one of the exhibits, steel columns identify 800 counties where lynchings took place from the end of the Reconstruction period, 1877, to 1950. Visitors first see the columns in front of them, but as they move forward along the sloping floor the columns are now above them, representing the mob’s point of view at a lynching.
Joining Viera in the effort to erect the memorial to Robert Johnson were Tampa lawyer Tammy Briant
Spratling; Rep. Fentrice Driskell; Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Museum; Rev. Justin LaRosa of Hyde Park United Methodist Church; and Rev. Robert Blount of Abe Brown Ministries.
“It’s important because it’s an area that we have not done justice by, in my opinion,’’ says Hearns. “History doesn’t always have to be pretty, but it’s examining the truth, examining what actually did happen. Hillsborough County was part of the South just like other cities we’ve heard about and read about in the Deep South – incidents of violence and racism aimed at Black men. “These are the ones that we have documentation on, but who’s to say there aren’t many others that we’ll never know about.”
Johnson had been accused of assaulting a white woman and was cleared by Tampa police, but he was still being held at 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 30 when police turned him over to a man named Thomas Graves, who posed as a deputy constable. Graves claimed a mob had grabbed Johnson from him in downtown Tampa and took him off to 50th
Street and Sligh Avenue, where they lynched him. It’s believed Graves was in on it and helped in the murder, Viera says.
“The transfer, it is believed, was actually done at Tampa City Hall,’’ he says.
A grand jury investigation was initiated afterward by Hillsborough State Attorney Rex Farrior, but no one was ever arrested. Farrior “has no stains in this,’’ Viera says.
“Rex Farrior, when it was finished, said to the governor that clearly racial prejudice had a role in the grand jury not charging anybody in the lynching of Robert Johnson,” he says.
Viera’s committee started the effort about 2 ½ years ago, he says. He contacted the Equal Justice Institute inquiring about getting a marker for Hillsborough County and discovered that his friend and fellow lawyer Tammy Briant Spratling had also made an inquiry. They worked together on it to show the Equal Justice Institute that the community was behind the initiative and “that you’re going to see it through, and that you have a history of dealing with issues like this,’’ he says. The institute paid for the marker.
“I always think that there’s a lot of parts of our history that we don’t know about,’’ says Viera. “Look at civil rights and racial justice history, there are things people know about. Most people know the names Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and John Lewis. Maybe fewer people know the name Medgar Evers or Fannie Lou Hamer. But there are so many names that people don’t know whose suffering, whose murders and whose lynchings formed the basis of unknown history but also have such a connection to the pain that a lot of people feel today.’’
To see prior coverage on the historical marker program go to Black Lives Matter: St. Pete, Tampa move forward on lynching memorials.