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:
Julie Buckner Armstrong. “How My Heart Grows Weary: Willie James Howard and the Suwannee River,” Journal of Florida Studies, vol 0109. Retrieved from: http://www.journaloffloridastudies.org/files/vol0109/armstrong-suwannee-river.pdf
The Documentary Institute, “Willie James Howard Lynching,” Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore. Retrieved from: https://www.pbs.org/harrymoore/terror/howard.html
Equal Justice Initiative, “On This Day – Jan 02, 1944: 15-Year-Old Boy Lynched in Florida for Sending Love Note.” Retrieved from: https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/jan/2