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Sunday, November 28, 2021

New historical marker commemorates victims of racial terror in Gainesville

The newest marker from the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project is now unveiled

<p>A historical marker is unveiled at the Alachua County Administration Building on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. The marker commemorates victims of lynching and says that at least 12 Black people were lynched in Gainesville.<br/></p>

A historical marker is unveiled at the Alachua County Administration Building on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. The marker commemorates victims of lynching and says that at least 12 Black people were lynched in Gainesville.

The city of Gainesville unveiled a new historical marker to commemorate Black individuals who were victims of post-Reconstruction lynching.

About 50 Alachua County community members gathered in front of the Alachua County Administration Building Saturday morning for a dedication ceremony to honor those who were identified as victims of racial terror between 1868 to 1874. 

County Commissioners unveiled a historical marker engraved with information on lynchings that took place after the Reconstruction era. The project was created by the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project and the Equal Justice Initiative.

The marker replaced a spot that once belonged to a statue of “Old Joe,” a confederate soldier. The statue commemorated soldiers of the Confederate States Army and was taken down in 2017 after increasing protests at Alachua County Commission meetings.

The historical marker is engraved on both sides with information on lynching on a local and national level after the American Civil War.

One side is titled “Lynching in America,” and honors the story of thousands of African Americans who were lynched during Reconstruction because white leaders wanted to maintain racial, economic and social control. It also states that Florida had one of the highest per capita lynching rates in the nation.

On the other side of the marker: “Reconstruction-Era Lynchings in Gainesville.” This side provides information on racial terror that occurred in Gainesville specifically. It lists individuals identified to have been lynched between 1868 and 1874: Harry Franklin, Mr. Stephens, an unnamed person, Christopher Cummings, Henry Washington, Alexander Morris, Sandy Hacock and Eli.

“Most people didn’t think in their lifetime that we would be able to put a marker here to honor the men who were lynched in the city of Gainesville,” said Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “We’re just trying to bring truth to the whole process.”

The NAACP and the United Church of Gainesville went up to the Equal Justice Initiative headquarters in Montgomery to propose a collaboration to create historical markers, Foxx said.

The Equal Justice Initiative is working with Alachua County, among dozens of other counties nationwide, for its community remembrance project. They started the historical markers as a continuation of the soil collection efforts that took place in February.

“We have a lot of exciting things in store,” said Bre Lamkin, Project Manager for Racial Justice Efforts at the EJI. “There are several sub-committees operating here in Alachua County all of whom intend to host soil collections, historical markers installations and essay contests.”

The information on the markers was largely compiled by UF Adjunct Associate Professor of African American studies and a filmmaker, Patricia Hilliard-Nunn and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Paul Ortiz. Both conducted research and composed the literature on both sides of the historical marker. Hilliard-Nunn passed away last year, but she is remembered by her work and passion for social justice.

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Hilliard-Nunn’s husband, UF Levin College of Law lecturer Kenneth Nunn, recounted how she decided to dedicate her time to this project.

“She wanted to make a film about Gainesville history. That required her to do a lot of oral history with people around town,” Kenneth said. “The question of unspeakable, unremembered events used to come up a lot. Nobody recognized it or talked about the fact that this occurred.”

Kenneth said Patricia would continue digging and finding descendants of people who were lynched. After continuing to speak to them, she convinced them to share their stories.

“It empowered and emboldened people to begin to speak their truths,” Kenneth said.

Members of the Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission also said they support and advocate for the markers. Gainesville mayor Lauren Poe also spoke at the unveiling.

“The citizens and public officials of Gainesville failed in their basic responsibility to safeguard fellow citizens, to uphold the rule of law and to offer equal justice to each individual,” Poe said. “On behalf of the City of Gainesville, I offer our deepest and sincerest apology for such racial terror lynchings that they ever happened in our city.”

Florida state Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson spoke out on a need to end years of oppression that continues through what she called “the new Jim Crow” in the prison system.

“As a nation we declare that all men are created equal. Do we really mean it?” Hinson said. “We must unify and revolt and protest to these radical changes. Build bridges with our neighbors, not walls of division. Make it uncomfortable for hate to live here.”

Hinson spoke about her proposal of a bill to end cash bail for the many individuals sitting in jail without a trial because they cannot afford bail. She is also advocating for a bill that recognizes unpaid prison labor as slave labor. Both bills will be proposed during the upcoming legislative session in January.

The ceremony also held a performance from the Caring and Sharing Learning School. Elementary school students in the fine arts program sang the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and performed a modern-dance piece to music from the movie, “Harriet.”

Gainesville resident Tarena Stanley, 37, attended the event with her daughter, a fourth grader at Caring and Sharing Learning School. She believes the best way to introduce children to this history is being transparent about the injustices toward African Americans that happened in the past.

“I think it’s important to be honest. It’s important to not sugarcoat it,” Stanley said. “Simply phrase it in a way that a child would understand.”

Her 9-year-old daughter, Laila Stanley, said she learned of the history of racial terror from class and teachers in the after-school arts program.

“It made me feel happy,” Laila said.

Erina Anwar is a contributing writer for The Alligator.

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