lynching remembrance ceremony
SAY THEIR NAMES — Attendees at a lynching remembrance ceremony Sept. 17 hold up the names of Black victims of racial violence. Along with Volusia County victims from around the turn of the 20th century, signs include the modern-era murdered, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The group draws a direct line from the past to the present. PHOTO COURTESY FELICIA BENZO

As they have done twice before, the Volusia Remembers Coalition held a ceremony Sept. 17 to honor two people on the list of four documented Volusia County lynching victims.

Anthony Johnson and Charles Harris were lynched on Maytown Road Sept. 17, 1896. They were in police custody, and were on their way from Osteen to the jail in DeLand. Both men had been accused of various “outrages” — a code word for sexual assault — on a 6-year-old white girl.

Johnson and Harris were never tried for the crimes they were accused of, and no one was ever prosecuted for their murders.

Volusia Remembers Education Chair Felicia Benzo talked about similarities among the four documented lynchings in Volusia County.

“All but one of the Volusia County victims were being transported by the police,” Benzo said. “The one who wasn’t in transport was taken straight out of the jail itself.”

In all four cases, the lynching victims’ assailants walked away unpunished. Three of the victims were attacked because of allegations of assault against white females, which historians note is a common pattern in Jim Crow-era lynchings.

The bodies of Harris and Johnson were left hanging from trees, and were riddled with bullets, Benzo said, citing news reports at the time. The alleged assault occurred on a Thursday; by Thursday evening they were dead. No one knows where they were buried.

As part of the Volusia Remembers process, which the local group undertakes with the assistance of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, soil is collected from the site of the murder.

Two jars are filled for each victim — one for display at EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, and one to be displayed locally.

“At the site, nothing is 126 years old,” Benzo said, referring to the location where the group believes the 1896 lynching occurred, and where soil was collected. “That’s why it’s so important to collect the soil. The earth was a witness.”

“Florida was a major site of white supremacy,” associate professor of history at Bethune-Cookman University Dr. Richard Buckelew told those gathered for the remembrance ceremony. “The Ku Klux Klan was extremely strong in this area, due to the isolated nature of Florida, along with its rapid growth.”

Reconciling the injustices of the past is part of reflecting on our present and future, coalition members said.

“Remember, our work cont inues. Economic and racial disparity continues to take lives,” Stetson University professor Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown said.

“It’s a reality for us. It takes courage, standing up,” County Council Member Barb Girtman said in remarks she made before reading a county proclamation recognizing the victims and the remembrance ceremony.

“If you don’t say anything, you’re part of the problem,” Girtman said.

“Freedom isn’t free — it comes at an expense,” Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano told the audience. Along with taxes and jury duty, the price includes “… the blood and sacrifice of those who died long ago.”

The Volusia Remembers Coalition will now embark on the task of obtaining historical markers and designations for the sites of the Volusia County lynchings.

Buckelew ended his remarks with a quote from author, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”


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