A Horrific History

MOSH’s exhibit on racial terror lynchings informs and invites reflection

“I thought I was a good citizen. Give my bank book to my children.” That quotation is from Anthony Crawford, a black man who was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1916. It is just one example from a time when racial terror swept through our country – from 1877 to 1950, the era between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement. This man’s last words illustrate the inhumanity of the Jim Crow South, its unjust laws and their violent, unlawful enforcement. Good citizens died when accused of wrongdoing, some by lynching, a manner of murder that is public and marked by masses of people taking part for the purposes of inciting fear and showing the gruesome result when boundaries created by the powerful are crossed by those who are not. 

Our country’s history of lynching is being studied and presented by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), whose groundbreaking work has begun the conversation of uncovering this aspect of our legacy of racial injustice. In conjunction with EJI and the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Science and History (MOSH) is presenting Legacy of Lynching, on display through Dec. 8, an exhibition that the museum hopes will serve to educate our community by not only sharing EJI’s work, but by highlighting the seven terror lynchings that took place right here in Duval County.

The Jacksonville Community Remembrance Project (JCRP), organized by 904Ward, is the local expression of the EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, and is made up of volunteer professionals who are doing our county’s work, as outlined by EJI, to further their efforts. Led by co-chairs Melanie Patz and Lynn Sherman, JCRP partnered with EJI to bring this exhibit to Jacksonville and enlisted local history professors Dr. David Jamison of Edward Waters College and Dr. Scott Matthews of Florida State College of Jacksonville, as well as Joel McEachin, city planner supervisor for historic preservation at the City of Jacksonville’s Planning and Development Department, to aid in the research and presentation of the documented history of Duval’s terror lynchings. 

Marsha Hatcher, Life Is Not Balanced, mixed media.

The MOSH exhibition illustrates the national perspective on lynching through illustrated text panels, videos and an interactive map provided by EJI and the Brooklyn Museum. It expands the story through JCRP’s illustrated information panels, photographs, and video clips, created by Jamison and Wonderland Media, of oral histories given by community elders who lived through the era of the Jim Crow South. It also features two- and three-dimensional pieces of art – sculptural and mixed media works by local artist Marsha Hatcher, inspired by the narrative of racial terror – and seven EJI-provided empty jars, one for each of the seven Duval victims, that will be filled with soil from each lynching site. Patz finds these exhibition elements especially impactful: “The empty soil collection jars represent our community’s lack of acknowledgement and reckoning with our terrorist past. As the jars are filled with the soil where Duval lynchings occurred, they will serve as a visual representation that we are no longer silent about our past.”

“We think it’s important to underscore the fact that Duval County was not immune to this dark chapter of our collective past,” says MOSH Curator Paul Bourcier. “The information provided by the research team of the JCRP adds more detail to EJI’s narrative and grounds it in local history.”

Empty soil collection jars provided by EJI to fill with soil from each of the Duval County lynching sites.

McEachin says that at the time of Duval’s terror lynchings, the city was enforcing and creating Jim Crow laws of segregation and undergoing great flux in its population and industry. “Being a major rail center and with a growing port, Jacksonville during the 1880s became Florida’s most significant city economically,” he says. “But,” he adds, “opportunities for blacks in this growing economy were significantly limited as white business leaders sought to expand lumber, turpentine, and later phosphate industries by use of a large under-paid black labor force established through black codes many times enforced through racial terrorism and violence.”

The racial divide in our city became more evident after the “Great Fire of 1901,” when lauded author James Weldon Johnson was one of many blacks forced to flee the area due to violence that followed the fire, a fact that he noted and expanded upon in his autobiography, Along This Way. This hardened racial relationship saw its most extreme expression in the form of lynching. 

“During the last quarter of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, racial terrorism, particularly lynching, was increasingly used as a stern warning that blacks should not go outside defined boundaries both in behavior and geography,” says McEachin. 

These unjust boundaries, ever-changing and subjective, that weighed upon blacks during this time and thereafter are noted by photographer Bill Yates as he recollects his recent experience visiting Duval’s lynching sites with Matthews to document them for the MOSH exhibit. 

Read MoreBy Meredith T. Matthews

Author: Arbus

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