MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Soil from the site of a 1934 lynching in Hillsborough County is now on display nearly 500 miles away at the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s part of a soil memorial honoring victims of racially-motivated lynchings nationwide.
“This is part of us discussing all of our American history here in Tampa, here in Florida, here throughout the United States where we have to know how we got to where we're at,” said Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera.
Viera has helped lead the effort locally to honor lynching victims from the Tampa Bay area. Over the weekend, Viera and about 30 others took a bus to Montgomery to drop the soil off at the museum.
The soil honors Robert Johnson, who was lynched by a white mob for allegedly assaulting a white woman. The EJI says this is despite Tampa law enforcement clearing Johnson from the reported assault. His murder was one of many examples of racial violence that haunted Florida’s Black community through the eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
A 1934 article from the Tampa Times says as Johnson was being transferred from city to county jail, he “was taken from him by a band of men who forced him to accompany them to Fiftieth St. and the Hillsborough River, where five shots were fired into his head and body.”
According to the EJI, Florida led the nation in per-capita lynchings of Black victims by white mobs from 1877 to 1850. There are currently five known lynchings in Hillsborough County.
“Racial terror lynching was designed to instill fear into the Black community in order to maintain the racial hierarchy of white supremacy,” the EJI writes. “It was not uncommon for law enforcement to hand Black people over to lynchers often without any show of force and indifferent to their legal duty to protect people in their custody.”
Local historian Fred Hearns also made the trip to Montgomery and said it is time for the country to more assertively address the indelible mark racism leaves on American society today.
"History is the most instructive creature I can think of, and the better we understand it, the better we can deal with those things yet ahead,” said Hearns.
Viera said a new marker honoring Johnson is set to be installed along the Tampa Riverwalk in the next few months. One side will detail recount the details of Johnson’s lynching and the other will provide context on lynchings in America.
Emerald Morrow is an investigative reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Instagram and Twitter. You can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.