Pensacola, Florida
Friday July 19th 2019


In The Soil

By C. Scott Satterwhite

In the early years of the 20th century, hundreds of white people joined in the public lynching of two African-American men in two separate instances in the center of downtown Pensacola. Mobs of over 1,000 men, women and children participated in the 1908 lynching of Leander Shaw and the 1909 lynching of David Alexander, both in Plaza Ferdinand.

This month, with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a public reckoning will take place in the very spot of those crimes.

Next Thursday, Sept. 20, a ceremony is planned to remember Escambia County’s lynching victims, followed by a panel discussion at the nearby Bowden Building hosted by Pensacola’s Race and Reconciliation Committee.

Efforts to memorialize Shaw and Alexander began in earnest at a meeting of the group. Organized by members of the EJI, the Race and Reconciliation Committee facilitated a community dialogue on the Plaza Ferdinand lynchings. The hope was that the local community would join EJI and several communities across the country by trying to publicly acknowledge lynching victims.

Based in Montgomery, Ala., EJI’s website states that it “confronts racial injustice, advocates for equality and creates hope for marginalized communities.”

Over the past year, EJI’s efforts to remember lynching victims garnered international headlines, specifically with the recent openings of the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both in Montgomery.

The memorial is the first and only public space of its kind that directly confronts our country’s history of lynching.

Throughout a space, which is almost the size of a city block, hundreds of individual rectangular memorials hang from the ceiling with the names of counties where the lynchings occurred and the victims.

An exact replica of each hanging memorial rests on the path leading out of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The replicas are made specifically for each community to claim and place within their county as part of the historical reconciliation EJI hopes to facilitate. The EJI anticipates that monuments will become available for communities to claim beginning in 2019.

Between 1899 and 1910, white residents of Escambia County lynched at least five African-American men. Newspaper accounts from the time describe a macabre scene where white mobs hanged the men in the exact spot, one of the city’s first outdoor electric light posts, nearly a year apart.

In the case of Shaw, whites hanged him, shot his body hundreds of times and cleaned the body parts from Plaza Ferdinand the following day. A photographer took pictures of Shaw’s body hanging from the light post and sold them as souvenir postcards.

To date, there is no official historical marker remembering these events, except what EJI created. That Escambia memorial is currently resting in Montgomery, alongside hundreds of others.

While The National Memorial for Peace and Justice remembers the victims in large-scale form, EJI’s Legacy Museum has another unique means of recognizing lynching victims.

Within the museum, visitors are surrounded by America’s history of racial injustice. Housed in a former slave market in downtown Montgomery, the Legacy Museum offers historical exhibits, multimedia visuals and even holograms to draw the connections between historic racial injustice and the present.

To further the visitor’s journey through America’s history of racial injustice, a wall of soil-filled jars stands by the museum’s exit. In each jar is the actual soil, collected by EJI and its community volunteers, where African-American men and women were lynched.

The victims from Escambia County will soon be a part of this memorial.

Recently, volunteers working for EJI carefully removed soil from Plaza Ferdinand with permission from the local government. As Plaza Ferdinand has been layered with soil several times since for beautification projects over the years, special care went into the removal to ensure the soil collected was from the time both Shaw and Alexander were lynched.

Getting to this stage was a several-month-long process for the local steering committee. Beginning last spring, representatives from EJI joined the Race and Reconciliation Committee to help create a small group with the express task of spearheading local efforts to memorialize the victims. The first person to volunteer for the project was Maurice Hargraves.

“This project is important because it gives us an opportunity to remember and tell the stories of persons who lost their lives extra-judiciously,” said Hargraves. “It’s an important first step in starting the atonement and reconciliation process.”

According to EJI’s website, “racial terror lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people through the country.” For the most part, these acts of violence were tolerated, if not encouraged, by local governments throughout the South and helped enforce white supremacist racial hierarchies.

EJI describes their position on this racial violence that killed more than 4000 African-Americans throughout the country in unequivocal terms, “These lynchings were terrorism.”

Although some whites were lynched for various crimes throughout the country, the vast majority of those lynched were African-American. All of Pensacola’s victims were black.

“I chose to get involved to be sure that black voices were instrumental in the telling and retelling of our own histories,” said Hargraves.

Another volunteer is Rita Milton. Milton is a long-time community activist and a member of Movement for Change who has been involved with this effort since the beginning.

“Lynching has been a sad part of our history,” said Milton. “The community needs to know the suffering our people went through, physically and mentally. I wanted to be a part of the remembrance project because of the importance of learning about our past and going forward.”

The long-term plan is to have a historic marker erected in the vicinity to mark the lynching events as well as the placement of an EJI lynching memorial in a yet-to-be-determined location in the county.

What: A soil collection ceremony to honor Escambia County lynching victims hosted by the Equal Justice Initiative and Pensacola’s Race and Reconciliation Committee
When: 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20
Where: Ceremony begins in Plaza Ferdinand, followed by a reception and panel discussion at the Bowden Building, 120 Church St.