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Pensacola Area Lynching Victims Remembered

Credit Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media
Historian Teniade Broughton and Ora Wills take collected soil from Plaza Ferdinand to document the lynching death of Leander Shaw.

Dozens gathered in Plaza Ferdinand Thursday evening to remember the deaths of two African American men who were hanged by mob in that same public square.

There are eight known lynchings that occurred in Escambia County between 1875 and 1910, according to historians. A group of local citizens is working with the Equal Justice Initiative to properly memorialize the men. At Thursday’s ceremony, citizens and family members collected soil from the sites to start a historically accurate documentation of the deaths.

Before the soil collection, David Alexander, III, retired chief of Pensacola Police Department said a prayer before the crowd.

“I have found that the love we have for one another continues to die...I ask you to come and give us some guidance and direction in this increasingly hurtful situation.”

Alexander and Ora Wills, a relative of lynching victim, William Dawson, carefully shoveled collected soil into large glass jars as musicians sang gospel songs.

It was 11:30 p.m. July 29, 1908, when Leander Shaw, was physically dragged by a mob from the county jail into the streets and taken to Plaza Ferdinand where he was hung from an electric light pole.

“That mob was here in the plaza so picture a mob 1,000 or more people here in the plaza,” said historian Tom Garner. “The jail at the time was in the next block at the Little Theatre Building. He was hung from an electric light pole and his body was shot more than 500 times.”

Shaw was accused of assaulting a white woman, Lillie Davis. Relatives of Davis were at the ceremony. Carol Brewton, a niece of Davis, stood in the crowd holding a sign that said: “Leander Shaw was a murderer, rapist and a thief.” 

Credit Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media
Carol Brewton, niece of Lillie Davis, holds up a sign in protest of Thursday's ceremony.

Gael Frazer, president of the African American Heritage Society, said the ceremony was not “condoning” any wrongdoings that Shaw may have done. As a peace offering, she allowed the family the chance to light a candle in memory of Davis, which sat by the collected soil of the lynching victims.

“We are country with a civilized society and laws,” Frazer said addressing the crowd. “They should have been incarcerated — serve their time and let the system handle that they shouldn’t have been hunted down like dogs. We’re all here as children under God.”

A second lynching occurred less than a year after Shaw’s on April 5, 1909. David Alexander, who is not a known relative of the former police chief, was accused of killing a white police officer. He was forcibly removed from the city jail by a group of men and hung from the same light pole as Shaw. 

At Thursday’s ceremony, a bouquet of white flowers sat where the light pole would have been. 

Credit Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media
A bouquet of white flowers sit where the bodies of Leander Shaw and David Alexander were hung in the 1900s.

Historical research of lynchings in Escambia County is ongoing. And at the ceremony, Garner shared information of a lynching he had just heard about a few weeks ago. William Dawson was a young man that worked at a tourist camp in East Brent. He walked home from work every evening. But on the evening of Sept. 3, 1934, he didn’t come home.

“His father worried, of course, and walked the path trying to find (Dawson),” Garner said. “He found his body in the path lying face down in the dirt...hands tied behind his back he had been shot.”

“He was getting ready to go to college. He was 18 years old.”