While a series of four Pensacola fires was extinguished in 1852, the flames still smolder today.
Simon, a slave who worked in one of the burned homes, was accused of setting his master’s home on fire despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary. Confess, Simon was told by the Pensacola Mayor Joseph Sierra, or his fellow slaves would be lynched.
The case was taken to the Western circuit court. The circuit court judge, Jesse Johnson Finley, upheld Simon’s confession and set a precedent in Florida: admissions to crimes under threat of lynching would be honored in court, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s differing opinion.
Finley became an architect of the culture of lynching in Northern Florida—a culture that was responsible for the death of 43 black residents of Alachua County—as well as the namesake for Gainesville’s J.J. Finley Elementary School.
The Gator Chapter of the NAACP posted a declaration on Facebook imploring the community to join its movement to ask Alachua County Public Schools to rename J.J. Finley Elementary School to the proposed new name, Josiah T. Walls Elementary School.
Walls was an escaped slave and Union Army soldier who lived in Alachua County after he was honorably discharged, according to the post. Walls was the only person in the county’s history to serve as Gainesville’s mayor, a member of the school board, a county commissioner, a state senator and a U.S. Congressman.
After losing to Walls in the race for Congress, Finley forced a recount in 1876 which resulted in Walls’ removal.
Gainesville activist Jeffery King proposed the new name. He was a student in Alachua County from kindergarten to his high school graduation in the late 1980s but said he never learned about Walls.
“Children in Alachua County should be taught about Walls,” King wrote in an email to The Alligator. “He's probably the most important African American in the history of Alachua County.”
The Gator Chapter of the NAACP also began a movement in January to rename J.J. Finley Park, said the group’s vice president Rachel Khoury. The park was originally named in 2019, three years after accounts of Finley’s concerning past were unveiled, Khoury said.
The Gainesville city commission voted unanimously to rename the park, but a new name hasn’t yet been selected. Since the vote, current and former parents, as well as students who are now graduating high school seniors, reached out to the school district requesting that the school’s name be changed as well, said ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson.
The J.J. Finley Parent-Teacher Association also received complaints about the school’s name in January, Khoury said, as well as complaints that the elementary school didn’t teach about Walls, despite his historical relevance to Gainesville.
“Considering the current Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, this name change will bring about hope and empowerment to the Black community within Gainesville,” Khoury said. “The pain that these memorials perpetuate in our community is unacceptable and will be the first step for Gainesville to bring about truth and reconciliation.”
Even if the school board decides to rename the school, the fight to eradicate racism in Gainesville doesn't end, she said. She said other Gainesville schools, such as Sidney Lanier Center and Stephen Foster Elementary School, are named after people who also have racist ties to the Confederate States of America.
“Failing to teach children in Alachua County about Josiah Walls is clearly the normalization of racism,” she said. “Gainesville is a community full of educators: in public schools, at Santa Fe College and at the University of Florida. As a community of educators, this should offend Gainesville.”
While the school board isn’t set to discuss the name change until in-person meetings resume in July, Superintendent Karen Clarke and Mayor Lauren Poe have expressed their support for the name change online and in correspondence with The Alligator.
Changing the name would need approval from the Florida Department of Education, said Tina Certain, District One school board member.
Certain has a personal connection to the school. She attended J.J. Finley Elementary School, but said she was unaware of the atrocities committed by Finley.
While she can’t predict the results of the school board’s vote, she said it wouldn’t have to be a unanimous decision. The change has community support as the school board received around 265 emails regarding the change Thursday.
‘Within the current climate, it could be a very strong gesture to say that, as a school district, we’re going to try to address issues of that realm,” she said. “We're still dealing with some of the vestiges of systemic racism in our school system, such as segregation and the academic performance achievement gap between white and black students, so it could have a significant impact.”
One of her hopes, similar to Khoury and King, is that Gainesville schools make an effort to teach students the importance of African American history.
“It's more than just slavery and oppression,” she said. “We’re part of this fabric that we call the United States of America.”
Josiah T. Walls fought in the Civil War, served as the mayor of Gainesville and was Florida’s first African American representative in Congress.