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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Remembrance Project Exhibit opening acknowledges history of Alachua County lynchings

Juneteenth celebrations will continue throughout June

People attend the opening of the Alachua County Remembrance Project Juneteenth exhibit on Saturday, June 1, 2024.
People attend the opening of the Alachua County Remembrance Project Juneteenth exhibit on Saturday, June 1, 2024.

Editor’s note: this article contains graphic descriptions of racial violence, including lynching.

On June 1, elected officials, musicians, historians, speakers, dancers and community members lined the lawn outside the Alachua County Commission building to witness a collection of Black history.

The Alachua County Remembrance Project was created by the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners in 2018. The project is dedicated to historical education to recall the history of racial injustice in Alachua County and make repairs within the community in honor of Juneteenth.

June 19 is nationally recognized as Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery. 

The exhibit was introduced by Vivian Filer, the designated Queen Mother of North Central Florida who is also known by the traditional name Mangnye Naa AmiAmi Osuowa Okropong I, with a libation from Ayoka Sowa-La and Nii Sowa-La. 

Alachua County Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Chestnut IV gave a brief history of lynching in the county, where soil samples were collected for the Remembrance Project Exhibit. 

“Between 1882 and 1930, Florida had the highest per capita lynching rate in the United States, and Alachua County ranked at the top of the list,” he said. “There are approximately 50 documented lynchings of Black men, women and children in this county.” 

Chestnut described lynching as “acts of terrorism” for simply being Black.

White mobs lynched Black Alachua County residents for various reasons ranging from exercising their voting rights to taking control of their property, and when there was no reason, it was to instill fear, he said. 

The exhibit collection began in 2020 with the theme Truth and Reconciliation, which Chestnut said is meant to recall Alachua County’s history of racial injustice with aims to make amends. 

Patricia Hilliard-Nunn was one of the first people to work on the project, but she died in 2020 before the exhibition's completion. Her husband, Kenneth Nunn, spoke at the ceremony in her honor. 

Nunn, a former UF law professor, said his wife started researching Alachua County’s historical racial injustice in 2001 and would visit the community with a camera to record oral history. However, she rarely got responses. 

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“Whether they were in the white community, the Black community, folks didn’t talk,” he said. “They didn’t want to mention it. They didn’t want to say anything about it.” 

In 2002, Hilliard-Nunn received enough community support to hold a public memorial for the Newberry lynchings. 

Over 20 years later, the Remembrance Project Exhibit consists of remembrance quilts and 50 jars of dirt excavated from the sites of lynchings in Alachua County. The exhibit will remain permanently displayed in the Alachua County Commission 

The jars represent more than just soil, Nunn said. 

“Each jar represents a community, each jar holds sacred soil, soil that soaked the blood of those who were murdered. Soil that retains the footprints of the mob that killed them, soil that absorbs the tears of the families that reclaim the bodies of their loved ones. Soil that nurtured new growth of plants and trees that mark the spot of these vicious crimes,” he said. “How could the soil not remember?” 

The soil is a memorial of how once-accepted violence is now condemned, a reminder that teaching Black history is essential to ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself, Nunn said. 

“These jars will remind us what happens if we don’t teach our history,” Nunn said. 

Dayo Nunn, Nunn’s daughter, was born and raised in Alachua County. She said educators like her father feel they can’t teach uncensored Black history following recent Florida legislation enacting education reforms. 

“This is my home ultimately, and we still need that work. We still need people doing these things,” she said. 

The exhibit boards held infographics explaining the historical significance behind each jar and quilt. 

“There’s been silence, but there hasn’t been healing,” read a quote from Hilliard-Nunn on one of the boards.

The United Church of Gainesville sold shirts at the event in collaboration with the Alachua County Remembrance Project and NAACP. Jessica Elkins, a member of the congregation, said she’s worked on the project since its creation in 2020. 

Despite the positive history of Alachua County, she said the lynchings were a tragic failure.

“These people need to be remembered,” Elkins said. 

There are duplicates housed at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, for each jar displayed in the commission lobby. 

Veloria Kelly, Alachua County Community Project High Springs Subcommittee chair, said it’s important for the county to acknowledge lynchings as a part of the community’s past. 

As a judge of the Santa Fe High School essay contest, she said the most impactful piece she read was written by a ninth grader who asked, “How did these things happen in my county?” 

The exhibit is a proud addition to the community, said Ronald Nutter, an Alachua County resident. 

“My stepfather was from Arkansas, and he never told me the name of the town he was from because it was too painful, but what he did tell me is about the lynching he saw as a child,” Nutter said. “The lynchers lynched a pregnant woman and then cut her belly open, took the baby out and stomped on it.” 

Nutter said he read every name and couldn’t help but imagine their misery and terror. 

The Alachua County Library partnered with the Remembrance Project. Kerry Dowd, the Waldo branch library manager, said the organizations will continue to organize Juneteenth displays for the remainder of June.   

“This is a wonderful way for the library to be involved to help share information about Juneteenth as well as information on the Alachua County Remembrance Project,” Dowd said.

The organization showcased two performances for the crowd. 

Elois Waters, founder and CEO of Ministries of Expressive Song and Dance, emphasized the importance of including dance in projects like the Alachua County Remembrance Exhibit. 

“A lot of times some people won’t read right away, but they might remember the jingle of a song or the movement of the song and go back and try to get that,” she said. “It helps stay in the soul.” 

Alachua County Deputy Manager Carl Smart said the event drew hundreds of people for an afternoon of truth and reconciliation. 

“I think it's important for all the citizens to see that the county has an appreciation for its diversity of citizens, for its African American community as well as other communities here,” he said. “It’s important that we see the county shows the importance of justice and point out the injustice.”

The exhibit was a part of Alachua County’s Journey to Juneteenth celebration running from May 20 to June 19.

Contact Morgan Vanderlaan at mvanderlaan@alligator.org. Follow her on X @morgvande.

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Morgan Vanderlaan

Morgan Vanderlaan is a first-year Political Science and English major and the City and County Commission Reporter for The Alligator. When she’s not on the clock, she can be found watching, writing and reciting theatre!


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