Written by Karen Kirkman and EJI February 2021
In 1865, after two and a half centuries of brutal enslavement, Black Americans had great hope that emancipation would finally mean real freedom and opportunity. Most formerly enslaved people in the United States were remarkably willing to live peacefully with those who had held them in bondage despite the violence they had suffered and the degradation they had endured.
Emancipated Black people put aside their enslavement and embraced education, hard work, faith, and citizenship with extraordinary enthusiasm and devotion. By 1868, over 80 percent of Black men who were eligible to vote had registered, schools for Black children became a priority, and courageous Black leaders overcame enormous obstacles to win elections to public office.
The new era of Reconstruction offered great promise and could have radically changed the history of this country. However, it quickly became clear that emancipation in the United States did not mean equality for Black people. The commitment to abolish chattel slavery was not accompanied by a commitment to equal rights or equal protection for African Americans and the hope of Reconstruction quickly became a nightmare of unparalleled violence and oppression.
Though existing records only reveal a portion of the violence enacted during the Reconstruction era, and untold numbers of victims may never be identified, the killings of over 2000 Black victims have been documented during Reconstruction between 1865 and 1876. Seven Black lynching victims have been documented in Gainesville during this period.
In 1871 a Joint Select Committee of the United States Senate toured the South taking testimony about “the condition of affairs in the late insurrectionary states” – specifically the atrocities that were being committed against freedmen by the white people resistant to Black equality, including the Ku Klux Klan. The committee convened in Jacksonville in November 1871. Leonard G. Dennis, a former Union soldier and political force in Alachua County, gave sworn testimony to the Committee about racially motivated murders that had taken place in Alachua County since the beginning of Reconstruction. Mr. Dennis provided a long list of names, dates and locations. Some of those lynching victims whose murders took place in Gainesville and vicinity were:
1. Mr. Stephens, lynched in November 1868
2. Harry Franklin, lynched in 1868
3. Alexander Morris was taken from jail and lynched by a mob on January 14, 1871. No one was arrested for the murder.
4. Sandy Hacock, lynched on September 14, 1871, and
5. Henry Washington, lynched on October 7, 1871.
Little else is known about these lynching victims.
6. Another name provided by Dennis was that of Christopher Cummings, lynched in 1870. On the 1870 census Mr. Cummings, born in 1810 in Virginia, was a farmer with real estate valued at $200 and a personal estate worth $100. He lived in Gainesville with a large extended family. He was shot and killed near Gainesville in 1870, after August 23rd. Although little is known about the circumstances surrounding the lynching of Mr. Cummings, denial of Black wealth and prosperity was common during this era, as white people often rejected the idea of Black people becoming economically successful in a time when economic exploitation deeply shaped the racial system of the South. Discrimination and inequality trapped many Black people in poverty during this era, while those who managed to build wealth or acquire property were regularly threatened by hostility or even violent retaliation. Racial terror lynching was used to terrorize Black communities and to maintain white economic control.
In early May 1874, a Black man known only as Eli was burned to death in the Gainesville jail. In his autobiography, John Wesley Hardin, an infamous outlaw hiding out in Gainesville, indicates that Eli was lynched following allegations of sexual assault against a white woman. Almost 25 percent of documented lynchings were sparked by charges of sexual assault, at a time when the mere accusation of sexual impropriety regularly aroused violent lynch mobs which formed before any formal investigation by law enforcement officials. Accusations of “assault” extended to any action that could be interpreted as a Black man seeking contact with a white woman. These accusations were often based on merely looking at or accidentally bumping into a white woman, smiling, winking, getting too close, even being disagreeable. According to Hardin’s autobiography, a mob (including himself) set the jail on fire at around midnight, burning Eli to death. The coroner, who was also reported to be part of the mob, declared that Eli set the fire himself, thus absolving the lynch mob of any accountability for Eli’s death.
RACIAL TERROR LYNCHING IN GAINESVILLE FOLLOWING RECONSTRUCTION
Following the 12-year period of Reconstruction, a new era of racial terror began when the federal government and military abandoned the protection of Black people in the South. Between 1877 and 1950, lynching emerged as the most notorious and public form of racial terrorism, used to enforce racial heirarchy and segregation. These racial terror lynchings, largely tolerated by state and federal officials, peaked between 1880 and 1940 and represented some of the most brutal violence, terrorism, humiliation, and barbarity in American history.
This era of racial terrorism profoundly impacted race relations in the United States and shaped the geographic, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Lynching and racial violence fueled the forced exodus of millions of Black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West during the first half of the twentieth century and created a social environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades. The Black refugees and exiles who fled the American South lived in marginalizing and disadvantaged circumstances in the urban North, West and Midwest. Black people who remained in the South faced continued threat, terror and humiliation rigidly maintained by legalized racial segregation. The violence and terror of lynching created a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America, and continues to sustain racial injustice and bias.
7. On the night of February 17, 1891, a mob of between 200 and 300 men broke into the Alachua County jail, abducted a Black man named Tony Champion as well as a white man detained with him, and hung them both on trees at near present day 419 E. 6th Street and 425 N.E. 5th Avenue. Tony Champion was born in Florida around 1867. His father and mother, Richard and Mary Champion, were both born in South Carolina and likely brought to Florida enslaved. In 1880, Tony was living at home in Alachua County with his parents and five siblings. In 1889 Champion left home, got into trouble in Orlando and was sentenced to a convict labor camp from which he later escaped. It was in prison that Champion met Harmon Murray, who was also from Alachua County. After Champion escaped prison in March 1890, Murray followed in June. The two met up and came back to Alachua County. There Champion and Murray teamed up with fellow escapees Alex Henderson and Michael Kelly, who was white, and formed group known as “The Harmon Murray Gang” which was subsequently accused of breaking into several stores in Alachua County. On the night of February 16th, 1891, the group of men allegedly attempted to rob Thomas McPherson’s store in Millard’s Station, and this resulted in the death of McPherson. The group of men took off toward Gainesville and allegedly engaged in a shootout with a posse. Murray escaped but Henderson was captured. Mr. Champion, who was shot in the thigh and back, was captured and taken to jail. Mr. Kelly, who was also wounded, was captured the next day and taken to jail. When word reached town that McPherson had died, an angry mob gathered outside the jail. The masked mob, estimated to be between 200 and 300 men, tore down the fence around the jail and stormed in, taking Champion and Kelly out of the jail. That night, on February 17, 1891, they were taken to a grove of trees on the old Savage lot and hanged to death from tree limbs. Tony Champion’s father came to town after he heard the news, and found his son’s body along with Kelly’s still hanging from the tree limbs. A grand jury could find no witnesses willing to identify the men in the mob and ruled that Champion and Kelly had come to their deaths by unknown person, and no one was ever held accountable for this lynching.
Racial terror lynching generally took place in communities that had functioning criminal justice systems but chose to deny due process to racial terror lynching victims, who were frequently pulled from jails or delivered to mobs by law officers legally required to protect them. White people -- even when accused of crime and facing very strong evidence of guilt -- were much more likely to be tried and punished legally than to be lynched because racism rooted in the anti-Black prejudices and hostility that survived Emancipation made Black people the most frequent targets of lynching based on their race rather than their actions and largely shielded the white lynch mobs who killed them from any accountability. Mr. Kelly, a white man, likely faced a much heightened threat of lynching for his association with Black people by allegedly being part of this Black-led band of outlaws rather than due to his alleged offense.
8. On the night of August 24, 1891, a white mob abducted a Black man named Andrew Ford from the Alachua County jail and hanged him on a tree at the old Savage lot, the same location where Mr. Champion was lynched months prior. Andrew Ford was born in 1872 in Florida to Preston and Amelia Ford, both born in South Carolina. Often called Andy, he was one of six children. Harmon Murray, who was still on the run after the lynching of Mr. Champion and Mr. Kelly, relocated to Orange Heights, where he met Andrew Ford while playing cards. After Murray allegedly beat a man severely, Andrew Ford, who had been with Murray, hid in his home, where his wife and mother were, fearing for his life. He was discovered by deputies and taken to jail. During this era, accusations lodged against Black people were rarely subject to serious scrutiny. Race, rather than the alleged offense, most often played a key role in the lynching of Black people, who were often deprived of investigation or trial. OnAugust 24, 1891, before Mr. Ford had the opportunity to defend himself in court,a mob of ten or so men gained entry into the jail and abducted Mr. Ford. The men then dragged Mr.Ford to the grove on the old Savage lot where Mr. Champion and Mr. Kelly had been lynched thatFebruary, and his body was found hanging from a tree limb the next morning. White mobs often left the bodies of their Black victims hanging following lynchings in order to dehumanize their victims and to send a message of terror and intimidation to the entire African American community. Forced to view the lifeless remains of one of their community members, Black people suffered trauma and fear after racial terror lynchings – and some chose to flee their homes in search of safety elsewhere. A coroner’s jury was convened after Mr. Ford’s body was discovered, and they ruled that Andrew Ford “came to his death by hanging, at the hands of parties unknown” despite the fact that jailers had direct contact with the men who abducted Mr. Ford from the jail. Nobody was held accountable for the lynching of Andrew Ford, who was about 20 years old at the time of the lynching and whose presumption of innocence followed him to the grave.
9. In the early morning hours of November 26, 1896, a white mob took a Black man named Alfred Daniels from police custody, hanged him, and riddled his body with bullets. A white man named J.D. Stringfellow’s barn burned down months prior, and reports indicate that law enforcement arrested Mr. Daniels on November 26, despite the fact that there was no evidence connecting Mr. Daniels to this offense. Newspaper reports suggest that while on the way to the jail after midnight, the deputy sheriff who arrested Mr. Daniels was met by a mob of masked men and ultimately turned Mr. Daniels over to the mob. During this era lynch mobs regularly displayed complete disregard for the legal system by abducting Black people from courts, jails, and out of police custody, and law, leaving no guarantee of custodial protections for Black people accused of crimes. Up until his brutal death, Mr. Daniels professed his innocence and warned the mob that they were about to kill an innocent man. At around 2:00 am, the mob hanged Mr. Daniels from a limb and riddled his body with bullets. No one was ever held accountable for Mr. Daniels’s lynching.
10. On the night of March 21, 1942, a Black farmer named Lester Watts was walking near University Avenue with his wife, Burnice Watts, when two white men shot and killed him. Lester Watts was born in Jennings, Florida to George and Frances Watts on March 20, 1914. He was one of at least 11 children. On March 23, 1935 Lester married Burnice Rowe in Gainesville. Lester Watts’ draft card, dated October 16, 1940, described him as weighing 145 pounds, standing 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a dark complexion and black eyes and hair. At that time he was a farmer for Walter Douglas, and was living in Gainesville with his wife. On the night of March 21, 1942, around 9:30 PM, Lester and Burnice Watts were walking on South Pleasant Street, near University Avenue and were confronted by Gardner McRae, age 30, and T.J. Watson, age 17, both white men. After an altercation, the men shot Lester Watts in what the family believes was a racially motivated killing. Watts died on the way to the hospital. McRae and Watson were both arrested and held by the Coroner’s jury. Burnice Watts, Mr. Watts’s wife, testified for the State. McRae and Watson were tried for murder in Circuit Court in April 1942. Watson was exonerated according to the criminal docket, and the family believes he was allowed to enter military service instead of being found guilty. McRae was sentenced to 5 years for manslaughter but released on appeal bond on May 24. . While out on bond, McRae was arrested for breaking and entering and sentenced on July 28, 1942, though it is unclear whether McRae served any part of his sentence for the murder of Lester Watts.
Over 4,400 racial terror lynchings have been documented between 1877-1950, with at least 18 having occurred in Alachua County. Four of the 18 documented victims of racial terror lynching in the county occurred in Gainesville.
THE SOIL COLLECTION PROJECT
The Equal Justice Initiative has partnered with community coalitions across the nation to collect soil from every lynching site as an act of remembrance and commitment to honoring the victims of this horrific era of terror. EJI's soil collection project is intended to provide opportunities for community members to get closer to the legacy of lynching and to contribute to the effort to build a lasting and more visible memory of our history of racial injustice. These jars of collected soil are on exhibit in the new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, as well as in other exhibit spaces, to reflect the history of lynching and our generation's resolve to confront the continuing challenges that racial inequality creates.
While collecting soil from the site of a lynching is a simple gesture, we believe it is an important act of remembrance that can begin a process of recovery and reconciliation to our history of lynching and terror. The named containers with collected soil become important pieces of our broken and terrifying past. We believe these jars represent the hope of community members who seek racial justice and a greater commitment to the rule of law and human rights.