With the recent outrage over the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, there has developed a real interest in exploring Black History. Many Americans desire to explore unresolved and ignored history.
Here in Tampa, a community coalition has been working on a project that takes us a step forward locally. For about a year, I have worked with good people like Rep. Fentrice Driskell, Tammy Briant Spratling, Fred Hearns, Rev. Glenn Dames, Pastor Christopher Harris, and Robert Blount of Abe Brown Ministries, among many others, through the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), to erect a memorial marker in our community for racial lynchings.
From 1877 to 1950, Florida ranked first nationally in per-capita lynchings. During this time, we know of five African-Americans who were lynched in Hillsborough County: Galloway (1892), John Crooms (1893), Lewis Jackson (1903), Samuel Arline (1912), and Robert Johnson (1934).
All of these are tragic. Some of these lynchings occurred in areas where we frequently travel. Robert Johnson, for example, was taken by a mob near Harrison Street in downtown Tampa and murdered along the Hillsborough River near Sligh Avenue.
Many ask: Why the need to explore these tragedies? I believe we have to explore these tragedies primarily because they are unresolved and ignored history that lingers like untreated wounds. The scars from the legacy of incidents like these are with us and define injustice today. Incidents involving Mr. Arbery or Mr. Floyd touch on the most sensitive chord within the American experience and legacy of historic and present injustice. They are not new and are connected to our painful history.
In 2020, we have Mr. Floyd and Mr. Arbery in Minneapolis and Brunswick, respectively. We have the Pulse shooting in 2016 and Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018. We have Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015, Charlottesville in 2017, and El Paso in 2019.
Not long ago, Americans knew of the pain of Jackson, Mississippi with Medgar Evers; Money, Mississippi with Emmett Till; Birmingham, Alabama with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; Mims, Florida with Harry T. and Harriette Moore; Live Oak, Florida with Willie Howard; and Philadelphia, Mississippi with Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.
When it comes to our hurtful history, it is the duty of a good American to do three things in 2020. First, a good American builds bridges. Second, a good American repairs the breach. And third, a good American makes right the historical wrongs in our own time. This EJI project seeks to do these steps.
We know the pain that exists in our country from our unresolved and ignored history. We know of slavery from Jamestown to 1865, and then the opportunity to choose redemption in Reconstruction. We know about the subsequent 90 years of murderous Jim Crow and conditions often “worse than slavery.”
Do your part as an American of conscience to build bridges, repair the breach, and see the historic wrongs made right by studying and applying Black History to 2020. Learn about how we got to where we are today and how to choose redemption. Learn about that World War II Purple Heart recipient, Hosea Williams, who marched in General Patton’s Army and would be beaten at Selma in 1965. Learn about great names like Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, and many others. Learn about Parchman Farm, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and the Harlem Hellfighters.
Take a Florida journey into our unresolved and ignored history. Go to Mariana, Florida, and see where, in 1934, Claude Neal was lynched. Travel to the now destroyed town of Rosewood or to Putnam County, the birthplace of A. Phillip Randolph. Learn about Floridians like Medal of Honor recipient Robert H. Jenkins Jr. whose valor served as a challenge to Jim Crow. Learn about patriots like Tampa’s Robert Saunders, who returned from fighting Nazism in World War II to fighting Nazism in Jim Crow Florida. Visit lands of pain like the Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville. In Tampa, visit the paved-over souls of Mt. Zion Cemetery or our Memorial Cemetery, where World War I African-American soldiers who were killed in action rest.
And learn about the names Galloway, Crooms, Jackson, Arline, and Johnson.
These were five of the many black souls who were lynched in a pandemic of racial violence in the post-Reconstruction South. Their stories are a call for good Americans to learn all of our history and know how that tragic, violent, and hurtful history is related to our injustice that continues to this day. The breach is there and is waiting to be repaired.
Luis Viera is a Tampa City Council member. He was raised in the North Tampa/Temple Terrace area and is a 2000 graduate of the University of South Florida and in 2003 graduated from Stetson College of Law. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2003.