Almost 82 years after a Daytona Beach taxi service owner was lynched along the side of the old brick highway between DeLand and Daytona Beach, top officials, dignitaries, and community leaders in the city, county and circuit court came together to honor his memory.
Lee Snell, a respected member of the Black community and World War I veteran, was around 41 years old when his taxi collided with a 12-year-old white boy named Benny Blackwelder riding a bicycle the morning of April 29, 1939. The child died at Halifax Hospital.
After a white mob, led by elder brothers Everett and Earl Blackwelder, threatened to form around the Daytona Beach jail, it was decided Snell would be transported to the jail in DeLand by a lone constable. Just 3 or 4 miles outside of Daytona Beach city limits, the car was stopped by the Blackwelder brothers, and Snell was dragged out of the vehicle, beaten, and shot to death.
The brothers were acquitted by an all-white jury after the constable retracted his identification of the Blackwelders.
The case drew national attention at the time, as the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, and legendary educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune protested the decision, to no avail.
The effort is thanks to the Volusia Remembers Coalition, a local group that works with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, to recognize and remember the victims of racial-terror lynchings in Volusia County.
As part of the process, the group collected soil from the site of the extralegal execution and held an in-person and virtual remembrance ceremony Feb. 27, complete with historical reflections, performances by the Concert Chorale of Bethune-Cookman University, poetry, dance performances, and proclamations by city and county officials.
Poignantly, two of the current top upholders of the law in Volusia County spoke out as their historical counterparts failed to do.
“When I read the story of Mr. Snell, I have to take responsibility as the leader of the two of the largest agencies in this county,” Sheriff Mike Chitwood said. Before becoming sheriff, Chitwood was chief of police in Daytona Beach.
“Law enforcement failed Mr. Snell that day. Law enforcement of the past failed the community,” Chitwood said. “I believe in my heart of hearts, the overwhelming majority of law enforcement today are good men and women, and things like this will never ever, ever happen again.”
“I have to apologize for what occurred in my profession back then,” he went on. “But more importantly, I think we have to look at one another as human beings, and ask as human beings, how could we allow another human being to be treated that way?”
Chief Judge of the 7th Judicial Circuit Raul Zambrano drew a direct line between the racial makeup of the historical jury, injustice, and the racial makeup of juries today.
“Eighty-two years ago, an all-white jury acquitted the Blackwelder brothers. Today, the jury makeup continues to be almost all white,” Zambrano said. “Lee Snell served our nation. He stood guard over the words of the oath to protect the Constitution … he defended something, the Constitution, that failed him when it was time to have his day in court.”
Zambrano said that although jury duty is difficult, everyone must take part.
“And it’s easy to criticize justice when justice fails, but we must all be part of it… so I ask you to do your part, volunteer for jury service, answer the call, answer the duty,” he said. “There’s something that judges fear. There’s something that government fears. There’s something that the state fears, the law enforcement, the defendant, the witnesses: That’s the answer from a jury. And if you’re not part of it, we will always be handicapped by your absence.”
“We cannot allow history to remain untold,” African American Museum of the Arts Director Mary Allen said. “Educators and civil-rights activists called for justice for Lee Snell, but justice did not prevail.”
Volusia Remembers Co-Chair Grady Ballenger recalled a line from a letter written by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
“She said citizens of Volusia and Florida, the whole world is watching you. She also says in that letter, how long will you kick us and shoot us and burn us without your consciences speaking to you? How long?” he quoted.
“For all of us, the goal has been to affirm Mr. Snell’s humanity; to apologize for what happened to him nearby on the edge of Old DeLand Road,” Ballenger said. “You’ve heard that statement powerfully from the people who are responsible for implementing justice in our county, now in our own time. All of us together can honor Mr. Snell’s humanity and with him in our hearts and minds, work to build a more united Volusia.”
“It’s amazing what we can do when we come together as a people,” Daisy Grimes, chair of ceremonies, said. “When we come together as Black, white, red and all different backgrounds. Our diversity in this country really is what makes us great.”
To learn more, visit www.volusiaremembers.com.