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Race & Reconciliation: Seeking To Heal From The History of Racial Violence in Pensacola

Sandy Hollow Productions

The group Race and Reconciliation will continue its ongoing discussion of racial tensions in Pensacola this Thursday evening at the J. Earle Bowden Building, downtown.

The organization is now putting the spotlight on the history of racial violence in the community.

“The Equal Justice Initiative has been collecting and verifying information on lynchings throughout for every county in the United States, really, especially in the south,” said Julie Patton, assistant professor of social work at the University of West Florida and co-facilitator of Race and Reconciliation. “And, we have six confirmed lynchings here in Escambia County.”

Leander Shaw is one of the six people known to have been lynched in Pensacola in the early 1900’s. The story of how it happened is chronicled in the documentary Lillie and Leander: A Legacy of Violence, which will be shown during the R & R meeting. The film suggests that Shaw’s death was just the tip of the iceberg.

“And, that’s one of the things actually that Lillie and Leander considers, the boasts of people in Alice Brewton Hurwitz’ family that they killed other African Americans and buried them on paper company land up near Brewton,” Patton said.

Alice Brewton Hurwitz produced the documentary. The story, first told to her now over 50 years ago, begins with the rape and murder of her great-great aunt Lillie Brewton in 1908.  The suspect Leander Shaw was reportedly caught washing out his bloody shirt in the bay. 

In a clip from the movie trailer, Hurwitz tells of a mob gathering and shooting starting when the rabble of angry white men started storming the jail, which was located in downtown Pensacola near Plaza Ferdinand.

“They had the black man in no time at all,” Hurwitz said. She continued by asking her grandmother if they were sure they had the right man. “She said very quietly, yes.”

At that point Hurwitz got busy looking up contact information for Lillie’s youngest brother’s youngest son. She called and explained that she had been working on a documentary. “Then he added at the end of the conversation, ‘Well you know, it didn’t stop, there.’” 

The allegation from the elderly relative is that subsequently, hundreds of black men in the Pensacola area were murdered. I spoke to Alice Hurwitz about her exploration of the claims, when her film was first screened locally as part of the Pensacola International Film Festival back in 2007.

“Yes, from what I understand, it went on from at least 1908, when Lillie was murdered, until probably the late 1930's, early 1940's. And, there were some sporadic killings after that from what we heard in the community,” she said.

Hurwitz explained that if the murder of her great-great aunt was avenged with the killing of Leander Shaw, then something more had to be going on.

“I think that the (alleged) subsequent killings were, you know, it was putting together what the family thought that black men were dangerous for their women,” said Hurwitz recounting that there had been another rape and near murder nine years before Lillie in that same community. “And, they were simply, in their thinking, ridding the countryside, or those in the general vicinity of their home, of black men.”

The documentary details an investigation by the State Attorney’s Office and the search for human remains, allegedly buried under an old walnut tree at a curve in the road.  Ultimately, no evidence was found.

At the time of the film’s debut, I asked Hurwitz how she felt as she was uncovering the reports of the sordid details about her family and the Pensacola community.

“There was constant, constant doubt, fear, wanting to back away,” Hurwitz recalled. “People say, you know you were so brave, and I have to correct them every time and say ‘No, I wasn’t brave at all. I did try to forget it, walk away from it.”

Despite her mother’s illness at the time and following her death, Hurwitz decided to keep going, noting how the terrible story kept coming back to haunt her.

“I’m heart-broken, I’m heart-sick that it’s my family, and you know to say that it was typical of the time doesn’t give me comfort,” said Hurwitz. “And, I was totally; totally shocked by this part that still in Pensacola (nearly 100 years later) there is such horrible, deep-seeded fear in the white community and the black community.”

Hurwitz says if there was a positive as a result of her documentary about her family’s involvement in the lynching of Leander Shaw, and possibly others, it’s that it opened a dialogue on race relations locally.

Julie Patton, co-facilitator of Race and Reconciliation, hopes the community is now ready to move that to the next level.

“We’re showing this film in order to bring people’s attention to the issue and to try to lay these violent deaths to rest in some way that honors the victims and begins to bring about some healing or reconciliation.”

After the showing of “Lillie and Leander: A Legacy of Violence,” there will be a panel discussion, featuring community activist James Foster, UWF English instructor and activist Scott Satterwhite, Tom Garner, who’s done a lot of research on lynching in Escambia County and local genealogist and historian Teniade Broughton. The meeting is set for 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. at the J. Earle Bowden Building downtown.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.