Editor’s note: History taken from the Volusia Remembers coalition, in particular Stetson University Grants & Sponsored Research Assistant Director Sidney Johnston, and newspaper articles appearing in the September 1891 editions of the Florida Agriculturalist, the Volusia County Record and the Jacksonville Evening Telegram.
Lee Bailey was lynched in DeLand by a mob of white men in the early-morning hours of Sept. 27, 1891. His body, riddled with bullets, hung from an oak tree in the middle of West Rich Avenue in DeLand near Clara Avenue, only a block away from the jail he was kidnapped from, and only half a block from what was once the Black neighborhood known as Bermuda Bottom.
“It was a ghastly sight that early risers in DeLand gazed upon Sunday morning,” the Florida Agriculturalist newspaper reported, under the headline “A JUST FATE!”
One hundred thirty years later, another group gathered on a September morning under the branches of old oak trees at Clara and Rich avenues.
This time, it was to remember Lee Bailey, to reflect on racial injustice in Volusia County, and to reconcile with our brutal past.
Bailey, a Black laborer, was accused of sexually assaulting the wife of a prominent white businessman, J.R. Wetherell.
“[Lynching] is done throughout the country, and it is the only safe-guard for the protection of our wives and daughters,” the Volusia County Record stated in their article about the murder.
In racial terror lynchings, charges against Black men for sexual assault of white women were a common justification.
According to news reports, Bailey had worked for the Wetherells over the summer. Mrs. Wetherell identified Bailey as the one who had assaulted her by his hair and his shirt, and scarring on his arm. A justice of the peace announced the results of the interview with Mrs. Wetherell to the public, who were immediately incensed.
Anticipating trouble, the sheriff at the time, Jefferson Kurtz, had decided to spend the night in the jail.
Around 1 a.m., a mob of men broke into the jail, and tied up Sheriff Kurtz, shrouding his head in a blanket. The sheriff would testify he was unable to identify any of the men, but estimated their numbers to be at least a hundred.
The men kidnapped Bailey. Kurtz heard a “volley of gunfire.” Bailey’s body would be taken some 250 yards away, and hung from a limb of an oak near Rich and Clara avenues.
September 25, 2021
Volusia Remembers, a coalition that works with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, gathered at 9 a.m. Sept. 25, 2021, the site where Lee Bailey’s body was left hanging 130 years before.
The coalition, working in conjunction with the EJI, has identified four lynchings that took place in Volusia County — the September event is the second they have held.
The purpose of the group is to remember the lives of those who were killed and forgotten in these extrajudicial killings, and to reflect on and reconcile these events with our present and future, as Americans grapple with our past, and with continual racial injustices.
Soil was collected from near a nearby tree, estimated to be closest to the location of the tree Bailey’s body was hung from (that tree was cut down in 1909 — a brief newspaper article about its removal included a reference to the lynching).
The group, along with community leaders, citizens, representatives from city and county government, and a DeLand Police Department captain, marched silently from the intersection of Rich and Clara avenues to the Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheatre, 322 S. Clara Ave., where a longer remembrance service was held.
The signs held by the group made it clear that they drew a direct line from the past to the present — there was a sign for Lee Bailey and a sign for Lee Snell, a Black man who was lynched near Daytona Beach in 1939, but there also were signs for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and others from the modern era who have been killed in encounters with the police.
“We cannot begin to heal in the present without acknowledging our past,” Daisy Grimes, chair of ceremonies, said.
Impact in DeLand
Stetson University Grants & Sponsored Research Assistant Director Sidney Johnston tied Lee Bailey’s death to what we know about Black people in DeLand in the 1890s.
Black DeLandites helped construct the jail, Johnston noted, and the 1900 federal census recorded 10 Black people and 1 white person in the jail.
Additionally, the jail was constructed across from a growing Black neighborhood, rather than somewhere closer to the Volusia County Courthouse (when the jail was ultimately rebuilt, it was across from the Historic Courthouse).
“In the early 20th century, the Bermuda Bottom neighborhood went into decline, residents moved to other areas of the community or left DeLand, and their homes and church were destroyed, a significant loss in the annals of DeLand’s 1890s Black culture,” Johnston said.
By the 1900 census, Johnston noted, growing Black neighborhoods in DeLand moved farther from white neighborhoods, and the number of Blacks who worked in white households fell by 90 percent.
“The decline of Blacks who resided in white households — a decrease of nearly 90% over 15 years — represents a significant change in the local habits and customs of DeLand’s Black culture in the 1890s — largely due to Jim Crow legislation and partly due to the lynching of Lee Bailey,” Johnston noted.
“As the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still teaches: ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,’” Johnston said. “Today, we stand in that long arc remembering Lee Bailey, understanding that DeLand’s white residents terrorized DeLand’s Black citizens in 1891, while denying Lee Bailey equal justice under law.”
The soil collected from the Clara and Rich avenue site was mixed with that of soil collected from the site of the Lee Snell murder, and mixed with water at the base of a newly planted tree in the amphitheater.
Jars of the Lee Snell and Lee Bailey soil is on display at the African American Museum of the Arts, at 325 S. Clara Ave.
The soil is in front of a quilt depicting soil jars hanging from a tree, made by Pamela Edwards, a member of the Story Quilters of Hannibal Square.