The weekend of 25-26 September was observed as Lynching Remembrance Weekend where I live in Maryland. In contrast to Juneteenth, which celebrates emancipation and freedom, a time of jubilee, Lynching Remembrance marks an on-going holocaust. The official dates for Lynching in the United States are between 1882 (the end of the Reconstruction period) and 1968. The official total for lynchings in the United States is 4,743. However, it is believed there were many that went unreported by the perpetrators who were trying to avoid any legal consequences as well as victims’ families who feared retaliation for speaking out. In addition, there are still events reported and unreported that qualify as lynching, especially in the face of the continuing inability to get a federal law against lynching passed in Congress.
I grew up in New York City. To the extent that lynching was ever discussed around me, it was more in the context of “cowboy” movies, where rustlers and bandits were threatened with “hanging’” by unruly, impatient mobs, seeking immediate “justice.” I was well into my teens before I learned about lynching as a form of control by those who, despite their legal support for white dominance, feared any assertion of manhood, agency, or civil rights by a community’s black population. I was older yet, when I learned that unlike the hangings of cowboy movies, lynching could include being tortured, mutilated, burned alive, then hung up for days as a warning to others, and even drowning. These lynchings were not the spontaneous acts of angry townspeople. These lynchings could be planned, with hundreds of individuals coming with their whole families, from miles around, to picnic as they watched the brutal, horrific events. Family pictures might be taken and some of those pictures ended up as postcards to be sent to friends and family elsewhere. Others could be carried out with only a few witnesses, including, sadly, the victim’s family members, who dare not say anything later.
My family does not come from Maryland. However, the Weekend of Remembrance here reminded me that there was a tragic and unresolved lynching of a fifteen-year-old boy in my paternal family’s hometown of Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida. His name was Willie James Howard.
Live Oak, the county seat of Suwannee County, is in northern Florida, about halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, and about forty miles southeast of Valdosta, just over the Georgia line. It’s an area known as the Wiregrass. In 1943-44, segregation and strict social separation of races in Live Oak were the order of the day. Live Oak was a KKK hot-bed.
Willie James was considered lucky. He had an after-school and weekend job at a Five and Dime store in Live Oak. His co-workers were white. This was not only considered an opportunity; it was a privilege. All was going well, until Christmas. Willie James gave Christmas cards to everyone at the store, including a young white girl who worked at the store, Cynthia Goff. It was bad enough that he gave the Christmas cards, but he followed that with a personal letter to Cynthia on New Year’s Day. In it he admitted he was smitten and wished they lived in the North, where he believed his admiration wouldn’t be considered inappropriate. Indeed, he was aware that the letter was not considered proper, saying, “[P]lease don’t let any body see this[.] … I guess you call me fresh.” Willie James seemed to acknowledge that his openness would be a problem. I’m hard-pressed to believe his parents had not instilled in him the need to mind his place, which meant no flirting with white girls. However, this was 1944, eleven years before Emmett Till. He wouldn’t have had his mother, and father, drumming into his consciousness what had happened to Emmett Till, hammering home that flirting with white girls was a risky, life-threatening activity that young black boys must avoid at all costs. Regardless of what Willie James’ parents may or may not have told him, his youthful emotions took the risk and reached for the unreachable, white Cynthia Goff.
For her part, Cynthia did not heed Willie James’ admonition to not show the letter to anyone. She showed it to her father. Her father resolved to teach Willie James a lesson. In truth, he resolved to teach the entire African American community a lesson. Cynthia’s father and friends went to the James home where they dragged Willie James from the home saying that his father needed to punish him. Then they went to the place of work of Willie James’ father, forcing him at gunpoint to go with them. Then, they went outside town to the banks of the Suwannee River (the same Suwannee River in the Stephen Foster song), where they tied Willie’s hands behind his back and bound his feet. They told him he could either jump in the river or they would shoot him where he stood. He jumped to his death while his father was forced to watch at gunpoint and later forced under threat of death to give a statement to the police that his son had jumped voluntarily. Willie James’ parents were told to leave Live Oak forthwith. Within days they left, never to return.
In 2014, my cousin, Clark “Randy” Randolph, who was born in Live Oak, but who hadn’t lived there in many years, agreed to meet me there to show me around and identify places of significance for our family’s history. He explained that he left Live Oak in 1944, shortly after Willie James was killed. He was twelve years old, and his parents were terrified. Fearing for his safety, they sent him to live with family members in Miami. Even as he told me the story, now a man in his eighties, he was clearly still affected by this terrifying event that occurred just as he entered his teen years.
After a couple days sightseeing, my cousin left Live Oak, but I stayed. I was going to Tallahassee the next day, which I did, but returned to Live Oak the same night. The following day, I did some last-minute additional sightseeing. I hadn’t seen the Suwannee yet. It doesn’t actually run through town, but rather just outside of town. I drove out there, driving past ruins of resorts where people once flocked to take advantage of the healing waters of Suwannee Springs. I found a spot near a then gated path that would go to a bridge that crossed the river. I didn’t go too far past the gate. I was alone and didn’t think it prudent. The path which formed the bank of the river was easily 20 feet above the river. I took some pictures and returned to my car.
In reviewing the particulars of Willie James’ story, I was struck by two things. I learned that there was a marker for Willie James in the Eastside Memorial Cemetery, the black cemetery. I had spent a considerable amount of time at the cemetery because most of my paternal ancestors are buried there. I imagine my cousin didn’t know either or I’m sure that he would have had us look for it. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to stop at Willie James’ memorial to pay my respects.
The second unwitting event made me catch my breath. In reading articles about this tragic event, I realized that my trip to see the river had led me to the area where Willie James had been forced to jump to his death in front of his father. It was a chilling thought, a haunting thought. Suddenly, I was reminded of what my Aunt Lutie had told me her mother, my grandmother, Lela Farnell Williams, told her after moving north: never go back South. My aunt did go back to visit family members annually, but my father, who was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, never did. For my part, I am glad I made the trip to see where my paternal family lived for over thirty years. I would consider making another research trip.
Both sides of my paternal family were fortunate and had successful businesses and a good quality of life in Live Oak, but there was always the threat of violence and death if one was too confrontational or assertive. Family tradition has held that my grandfather was just that, a little too forward. Aunt Lutie said they were forced to leave Live Oak (she was just a little girl) to avoid any violence against the family. My grandfather died when I was five, so I never had a chance to ask him about it. Fortunately, my grandfather worked for the railroad and therefore had excellent employment opportunities in the New York/New Jersey area. Thus, my father would never experience the terrifying cloud of an event such as Willie James’ death, nor would I.
For more information on the Willie James Howard lynching, see:
Aunt Lutie, as we called her, was my father’s sister. She was ten years older than he. I adored her. It really made her happy that I was interested in the family history. She said she was just like me, asking her (paternal) grandmother questions all the time. When I was still very young, maybe nine or ten years old, she wrote out much of the family history, complete with biblical “begats.” Much of what she told me I have been able to verify. It’s safe to say that I got the genealogy bug from her.
Aunt Lutie, herself, was born on 25 August 1894, in Live Oak, Suwannee, Florida. She was the first-born child of William Gainer Williams and his wife Lela Virginia Farnell Williams. They had married on 12 February 1893, in Live Oak. Live Oak is the county seat of Suwannee County and in the early 1900s was being considered for the state capital. Although in the northern part of the state, it is halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, but more importantly, it was a railroad hub with rail lines from throughout the state all converging there, in Live Oak. Live Oak was also on the Suwannee river, with so many sulfur springs nearby that tourists flocked to the many hotels and resorts erected specifically to accommodate them. Alas, political machinations outmaneuvered those in support of Live Oak, thus making Tallahassee the final choice. Live Oak was also the original home of a state legislated normal school for students of color, that later moved to Miami and is now Florida Memorial University, and the original home of the AME Church sponsored school that would become Edward Waters College, now in Jacksonville.
Live Oak would become notorious for two dark events. One was the trial of Ruby McCollum for the murder of a white doctor. Her trial was covered by Zora Neale Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed and heralded African American newspaper. Her story has been the subject of boks and documentaries, including a PBS special. The second event had a more immediate family impact. In 1944, a 15-year-old, African American boy, Willie James Howard was lynched for sending a Christmas card to a white girl. That event spurred our cousin and her husband, LouDavis Farnell Randolph and James Randolph to send their teenage son Clark away for his safety.
Aunt Lutie was surrounded by family in her early years. She lived near both her maternal and paternal grandparents. Her mother was the daughter of Randel Farnell and Sallie Jacobs Farnell. They had four children together: Maryland, William, Jack and Lela. Sallie had also had two other children: Anna (“Sis”) and Richard (“Dick”). Thus, there were aunts and uncles and cousins living nearby. Although a few had moved to Jacksonville, they came home often to visit. Lutie did not know her paternal grandfather, Joshua W. Williams. He had died 31 May 1893, a year before she was born, but her paternal grandmother, Ellin Wilson (aka Gainer) Williams, along with her father’s siblings all lived nearby. In addition, Ellin’s sister, Carry Manker and her family also lived close by. However, when Lutie was about 5 years old, family life changed.
She was never quite sure of the details, but apparently her father, my grandfather, William, got into some sort of altercation (possibly related to a woman, wouldn’t you know) and the entire family, Ellin, Williams, and all the siblings moved to New York City. They never returned to Florida to live, although Lutie at least, returned to visit her maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Once in New York, they settled into life in walk-up apartments instead of the single-family homes they had known in Florida. Still, they were near each other. Lutie said that they lived in a small apartment, along with some cousins, “Tunk” and “Moore,” and as she put it, “they even had the nerve to have a boarder.” “Tunk” was possibly the “T. Davis,” nephew, living with Carry Manker, Ellin Williams’ sister on the 1885 Florida State census. I’ve not been able to find him beyond that. “Moore” was probably Walter Moore, the husband of Ellin’s niece, Christina Manker.
In 1900, according to the census, William, Lela, Lutie, and younger brothers Charleton (“Jimmy”), and William Jr. lived on West 134th St., in New York City. My father wasn’t born yet. However, a Joshua Jackson, “cousin,” was living in the home. According to the census he was born in Arkansas, but his parents were born in “SC” as were William’s. I remember telling Aunt Lutie about this and asking her about him. She said she had no idea because, in fact, he was not living there. I tried to insist, but she said the apartment was tiny and cramped and she knew perfectly well who was, and who was not, living there, and he was not living there. She was adamant, and I did not pursue it further. I did ask if she remembered him at all, but she said no. I would find information after many years searching that potentially identified him, but his exact relationship to the family is still unclear.
In the 1905 New Jersey state census, Lutie is found living with her grandmother, Ellin, and aunts and uncles: Calvin, Joshua, Edward, Jessie (called “Missy”), and May (Iva Mae, or “Babe”), and a boarder, Thomas Manns, on Woodward Street. in Jersey City. Noticeable was the absence of her mother, father, brother Charleton (“Jimmy”), and baby brother, Herbert (“Herbie”), my father. Her brother William Jr. had died in 1902, while still a baby. So where might they have been?
My grandfather, William, was a waiter on the railroad, primarily the New York Central and New Haven lines. His absence does not seem unusual. He could easily have been “on the road” when the census taker came around, but where were the others? It seemed logical that wherever Lela was, “Jimmy” and “Herbie” were because they were still young. Jimmy would have been eight years old, but Herbie would have been a baby, only about a year old. Why was Lutie left behind? No idea. She was school age, maybe Lela felt she needed to stay and attend school. Then why wasn’t Jimmy left behind to attend school? Again, no idea. In fact, I have yet to locate them in a document, but I do have an idea where they may have been.
Aunt Lutie told me that her maternal grandmother, Sallie Jacobs Farnell, died from tuberculosis when my father, Herbie, was still in arms, in other words, less than two years old. I also knew that her maternal grandfather, Sallie’s husband, Randel Farnell, remarried 26 December1907 (Priscilla Vickers). Thus, I believe that Lela, Jimmy, and Herbie had gone to Florida because Lela’s mother was dying or had died. For whatever reason, Lutie was left behind with her paternal grandmother, aunts and uncles.
Lutie and her brother Jimmy would be sent to attend Joseph Keasbey Brick Agricultural, Industrial, and Normal School, a two-year college run by the American Missionary Association in Enfield, North Carolina. Today it is known as the Franklinton Center. Lela was a strong proponent of education. She had attended Florida Normal and Industrial School, in Tallahassee, Florida, today known as Florida A&M University. Their father, William, attended Edward Waters College, associated with the AME Church. Lutie was not happy. She said she couldn’t relate to southern culture and did not get along with her classmates who were from the South primarily. On the other hand, her brother, Jimmy, was comfortable and stayed longer, although I have not determined whether he graduated. Back home in New Jersey, Lutie worked in her mother’s dressmaking business, but decided what she really wanted was to become a nurse. She was planning to attend the Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing when, sadly, her mother, Lela died on Palm Sunday, 28 March 1914. According to Lela’s death certificate she had polycystic kidneys. Lutie remembered that her mother was in excruciating pain before her death. Lela was buried in New York Bay Cemetery, in Jersey City. Lutie’s nursing school plans were finished. She was now the de facto head of the family. Her father moved to Manhattan where he pursued his own interests.
Lutie went to work as a waitress to help support her younger brothers. Soon Jimmy joined his father in the railroad dining cars, leaving just Lutie and Herbie. Herbie remembered her being a tough taskmaster, using a souvenir circus whip to “spank” him when he was defiant. He said that one day when he had had enough, so while she was at work, he took the whip and buried it where she was not likely to find it. As she recounted to me that she had on one occasion reached for the whip in its usual place to discipline my father, but found it missing, my father suddenly began chuckling. Then, he said, “I buried it.” She was shocked. Then laughing she said she always wondered what happened to it. He retorted that he was sick of her hitting him, so he buried it. She just shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
Aunt Lutie would say that she had to be tough since she grew up with two brothers and their friends. She loved playing baseball with them, hiking up her long skirts so that she could run the bases efficiently. My father admitted also that she was the one person he had never been able to beat in a fight. Even as an older woman, getting off the bus wearing her high heels, she was not afraid to face down anyone who attempted to accost her. In fact, she kept a small knife in a special pocket she had sewn into the lining of each of her coats. She was in her eighties the last time someone attempted to take her purse as she got off the bus. “Come on,” she taunted. “Come on, I got something for ya,” she said as she planted her feet in a wide, but clearly solid stance. Apparently, her would-be assailant was stunned by her brazen confrontation and he took off. Disaster averted. She was just as prepared for intruders at home as assailants on the street. She slept with a machete, given to her by a friend who brought it back from the Philippines. When reflecting on the law that said one couldn’t kill a potential intruder unless they were inside your home and posing an imminent threat, she announced, “Don’t worry, he’ll be inside the house by the time the police get here,” … and “if anyone tries to come through my (bedroom) window, I’ve got something for him,” referring to the machete.
After the death of their mother, Lutie and her brothers had continued to live in the home at 246 Van Horne St. However, she couldn’t keep up the expenses of home ownership alone, on a waitress’ salary. Lutie said that the family that bought the home soon left themselves. She said that the new owners complained that there was a woman who appeared on the stairs and kept reaching for their (the new owners’) son. Lutie surmised that it was Lela, trying to reach for Herbie, her favorite and youngest child. The owners decided they could not stay and thus sold the house, moving elsewhere, away from the ghostly woman.
Lutie was invited to work at a clothing Factory, in New York. However, she did not like the working conditions and she refused to return. Instead, she worked in restaurants and finally landed a very good job working for a private family. Eventually, she would become the head housekeeper and companion to a “spinster lady,” Helen Graff. Miss Graff, or “Miss Helen” as we called her, was independently wealthy. Typical of many wealthy women of her time, she had no career, but spent her time involved with volunteer work or traveling. Aunt Lutie ran the household that included about three in regular staff, including a chauffeur, but also hired additional personnel when needed. She had her own bedroom there, which she used primarily for her scheduled afternoon naps (I suspect those didn’t come about until later years), but stayed over if holiday or other entertaining lasted too late in the evening to travel across town to her own home. As her companion, she traveled with “Miss Helen” on her many motor trips in the US and Canada. On the other hand, Aunt Lutie didn’t like boats, so no cruises, nor would she fly, so no trips to Europe. If Miss Helen took any of those trips, Aunt Lutie stayed behind taking this vacation time to travel to Florida to visit family. Miss Helen was kind to me as well. She often invited my parents and me to special events, and even to come visit when there were no events. I liked her. She and Aunt Lutie remained together until Miss Helen died in August of 1969. At that time, Aunt Lutie retired to baseball games and cooking the fresh fish caught by her friend Bill on his fishing trips.
Lutie married Guy Mann on 22 Oct 1919, in New York. They were compatible in the beginning, or so she thought, but slowly there was a wedge between them. Guy became controlling and jealous. He insisted all her money should be turned over to him. She disagreed. Ever resourceful, she had hidden some of her earnings in a separate bank account – and a gun under the stairway runner. So, when he became abusive and threatening, she reached for that gun and dared him to stop her. She told him she had had enough, and he needed to go. This time, he did. She never married again. I knew she had a long-time companion, Jimmy Tate. Jimmy wanted to marry her, and he maintained hope right to his death, but she never relented. I believe he died in the 60s or possibly 70s, but I haven’t been able to identify with certainty his date of death. I asked her one time why she never married Jimmy. She said that she prayed to God to rescue her from her marriage to Guy Mann, promising that if he did, she would never marry again. She said she planned to keep that vow. She did. Some years after Jimmy was dead, her friend Bill found himself without family or assistance as he recovered from a hospitalization. She offered for him to come stay at her house where she could help him with some every day tasks and home health aides and visiting nurses would help with his medical needs. They were good friends and even after he regained his health, she allowed him to stay on, giving each of them the gift of companionship so many elders miss.
Aunt Lutie outlived both of her brothers. Jimmy died in 1977, and Herbie died in 1982. In late 1984, early 1985, now 90 years of age, Aunt Lutie began to have increased problems with her health. By mid-May she was hospitalized. The doctors determined that she had major vascular blockages in one of her legs and recommended amputation. True to her spunky style she began talking about learning to walk again with a prosthesis with enthusiasm. Then the doctors decided that the other leg was also a problem. Perhaps they would need to amputate that one as well. She was less enthusiastic about that prospect, but still optimistic. However, by early June, the doctors came back to say they would not be amputating the other leg because her overall cardiovascular health was so bad they did not feel there was anything they really could do to help her. This was a terrible blow. I made my regular bi-weekly visit, but did not find her to be despondent. I believe she may have had more candid conversations with my mother on her private visits. Still, I believe we both knew my visit around 8th or 9th of June would be our last. I wanted to hold on to a slim hope that I would see her again, but on the morning of the 14th, my mother called me at my home in Maryland to tell me Aunt Lutie was gone and that I should come home immediately. My mother told me that a neighbor and good friend had been with her all day the day before (the 13th) and that Aunt Lutie seemed to be praying earnestly for God to take her home. Sometime in the early to mid-evening he did just that. A few days later we had a simple funeral, presided over by the minister at Salem Baptist Church, the church her mother had considered her home congregation. She was buried with her parents, William G. William and Lela V. Farnell Williams in New York Bay Cemetery, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, in Jersey City. Bill continued to live in the home until he died two years later. He was buried in New York Bay Cemetery as well.
There has not been a day that I have not missed Aunt Lutie. Her spunk and independence provided great examples for me. She was my buddy. She was window into the past. I miss her. I wish she was here to share my genealogy discoveries and to hear her insights. I know she is looking down, but I surely would love to talk with her.
 Williams, M. (1990). Lela Virginia Farnell Williams (1876-1914): An Early Student at the State Normal College for Colored Students, Tallahassee, Florida, Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, volume 11, number 4.