TAMPA, Fla. — Lynchings of African Americans are a horrid chapter in American history, and with 315 reported between 1877-1950, the Equal Justice Initiative ranks Florida as one of the worst offenders.
With five known lynchings, Hillsborough County was not exempt.
There was a man only known as Galloway. There was John Crooms. There was Lewis Jackson. There was Samuel Arline. There was Robert Johnson.
From reconstruction through the end of the Jim Crow era, most lynchings were racially-motivated forms of vigilantism used to punish African Americans accused of a crime or breaking social mores. Perhaps the most well-known lynching was that of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was murdered in Mississippi for apparently whistling at a white woman. Some lynchings were public events, attracted large crowds and even had children in attendance.
Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, along with State Rep. Fentrice Driskell and civil rights law professor Tammy Briant Spratling, are working together to erect a memorial to honor those five who were murdered in racially-motivated lynchings. The hope is to have a traditional marker through Hillsborough County and another marker through the Equal Justice Initiative. There is currently a marker honoring the victims a the EJI museum in Montgomery Alabama.
Viera, Driskell and Spratling spoke to 10News on Friday after giving a talk at the Café Con Tampa lecture series, which takes place every Friday at Oxford Exchange.
Note: This conversation has been edited for content and clarity
How did this idea come about?
Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera: A group of community leaders came together. Really good individuals locally from the community to talk about having a marker, memorial here to commemorate victims of racial lynching in the Tampa/Hillsborough County area. We know that from the end of Reconstruction to about the 1930s, five individuals who were African American were lynched on account of the fact that they were black.
We've recently submitted an application to the Equal Justice Initiative, so they'll be reviewing that. So, in terms of timeline, it could be anywhere from three months to a year.
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell: This initiative is so important to our community because it's critical that we memorialize history and try to understand where we've been so we can better understand where we are and where we’re going.
Why isn’t the history of lynching more widely known?
Driskell: One of the things that we’re hoping to do with this project is to increase visibility. Unfortunately, lynchings and that history just really has not been a part of the curriculum and what typically has been taught in our schools. But we’re hoping that this is a great first step to elevate the conversation and really bring awareness to this racial injustice.
In an ideal world, this project will help spark conversations and dialogue all over our community. Not just during Black History Month, but just generally have it woven into the fabric of who we are as Tampanians and who we are as Floridians and Americans. I think it’s very important for us to understand the racial intolerance that we’re seeing in dialogue present-day really can trace back to our history and not having truly dealt with that history. So, this is a part of opening up conversation so that we can have more healing and understanding.
How does the EJI play into all of this?
Viera: The EJI is an organization from Montgomery, Alabama, that deals with promoting a full, historical accounting of what happened in the United States whenever it comes to issues of racial injustice, and then dealing with the repercussions of those issues today. We submitted the marker [application] to them because of their record on these types of issues because the kinds of values they promote are consistent with the values we want this marker to promote.
What goes through your mind when you think about those victims?
Viera: It should shock us. It should shock the conscience, but it shouldn't surprise us. If you know our history, you know that these things happened...We're a country that's starting in 1619 before the founding of our country 400 years ago, we began with slavery. We had slavery for 90 years after the formal founding of our country, 11 years of Reconstruction, 90 years of Jim Crow. There's a lot of tragedies to be told in there, and we have to learn those tragedies.
As Americans, we have to know the greatness of our country, and I'm a very patriotic person. I believe there's a lot of greatness in our country, but we have to talk about the full picture. And again, we have to talk about that saying, which is the things that are wrong with America, they can be corrected and remedied and sanctified by things that are right about America. And the things that we talk about in this initiative, I believe that those reflect our best aspirational values as Americans.
What can we learn from erecting a memorial for lynching victims in Tampa?
Civil rights professor Tammy Briant Spratling: The number one critical piece of this initiative is raising visibility and beginning a conversation of reconciliation and recognition of this history. These victims have never had the opportunity to be recognized. They don’t even have the privilege of being in public records because they were taken out of the legal system. So, you can’t go and search for facts about their cases. A memorial does something to initiate the conversation and give them some visibility.
We are on a journey of reconciliation and healing…I would want [the community] to internalize the histories of these individual victims and to understand that they were people and that they matter and that their stories matter and that we want to make sure that this can never happen again. [We should be] always going through the appropriate legal system and that we don’t have individuals in our community taking matters into their own hands.
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