With the opening of the new National Memorial for Peace & Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative has put a national spotlight on lynchings in America. Locally, a group of citizens has been working with EJI to memorialize the lynching victims in Escambia County. A ceremony honoring them will be held Thursday afternoon.
“We will dig at the site of the lynching and put it in the jars (that was) given to us by the Equal Justice Initiative," said Teniade Broughton, a member of Escambia County’s Community Remembrance Project, which is holding a public ceremony in Plaza Ferdinand to collect and fill the jars for two black men who were hanged by a mob in that public square in the early 1900s.
“Mrs. Ora Wills is going to collect on behalf of Leander Shaw and the former (Pensacola) police chief David Alexander is going to collect for David Alexander," she explained.
There’s a bit of irony there explains historian Tom Garner, who conducted much of the research on the local lynchings.
“In 1909, David Alexander was accused of killing a white Pensacola police officer and you fast-forward almost a hundred years later and the chief of the Pensacola Police Department is a black man named David Alexander,” he said. “It’s a very odd coincidence.”
As to whether the two David Alexanders are related is a question that remains to be answered.
“The modern David Alexander, the retired police chief, tells me that his family goes way back in Pensacola and that there may be a connection and he and I are working together to try to track down the genealogy and match up the historical documents with the genealogy and see what the answer is. We don’t know.”
In a twist related to 1908 lynching victim Leander Shaw, the current candidate for attorney general contacted the local group about his father named Leander Shaw, who became Florida's first black Supreme Court chief justice.
Members of Escambia’s Community Remembrance Project have been working for with the local Race and Reconciliation group, as well as EJI, to memorialize those lynching victims who were killed in this area. The first phase of documentation and soil collection will be completed with Thursday’s soil collection for Shaw and Alexander, who both were hanged from the same light pole in Plaza Ferdinand. Garner, the historian, says the soil itself will be historically accurate.
“We investigated and there’s a fill layer of modern fill in Plaza Ferdinand that’s about eight-inches deep. And, the original land surface in the plaza that would have been there when Leander Shaw and David Alexander were lynched is about eight-inches underground. So, we’re collecting soil 8 inches deep to get into soil that would have been there historically.”
Broughton says for those who attend the ceremony to witness the soil collection, it’s an opportunity to connect with our history in a different, more personal way.
“I would like for folks to just imagine for a moment what it might have been like to be in the plaza in 1908 and 1909 to witness that level of terror, and think about how it affected those people who were the bystanders.”
Broughton is particularly curious about the children who were taken to witness the lynchings and how it affected their view of race. And, for her, the questions keep coming.
“I ask myself things like, well during the days of all these lynchings, where did all the black people go? This is downtown. They were living in the Tan Yard. They were living in Seville. Where did they go and what was it like the next day. Who had to come take the body down? Who had to bury them? What was the grieving process like for our whole city?”
“There’s a tendency to view lynchings as black history, and that’s just not true.”
Again, historian Tom Garner.
“If you think about it, without the white community there would not have been lynchings,” he said. “This is white history. It’s black history and it’s white history and if it’s both, it’s community history.”
Garner says it’s time we recognize this part of our history, even if it is unpleasant.
The soil collection ceremony will begin at 5 p.m. at Plaza Ferdinand, followed by a reception in the Bowden Building. At 6 p.m., Garner will take part in a panel discussion to be moderated by Broughton.