FORT LAUDERDALE — Florida has a long and relatively unknown history of lynching, a historian and former Florida International University professor says.
Marvin Dunn, 74, made the remark as he discussed his latest book, The Beast in Florida – A History of Anti-Black Violence with a handful of attendees at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center on Monday. “Florida has a terrible record of lynching,” Dunn said. “Florida has done its best to hide its history.”
Dunn spent 10 years traveling across parts of the central and northern areas of the state to cities where lynching occurred. He said there was more lynching in Florida after the Civil War than in other states such as Alabama and Mississippi because whites, who fought for the Confederates and lost, came to Florida where there was available land. At the time, the state had a large population of free blacks.
“Race violence became a big problem from the very beginning,” Dunn said. Dunn said the leading cause of the lynching or killing of blacks in the state was not sexual encounters with white women but a black man either involved in a murder or accused of killing a white person.
“Many of the victims were not hanged,” he said. “Most of them were shot to death.” His research took him to Marianna in the panhandle to the infamous town of Rosewood, which is west of Ocala near the gulf of Mexico, where an entire black community was wiped out. His research included interviewing witnesses of lynching and descendants of relatives who were victims or who perpetrated the lynching.
One of the stories Dunn recounted was about Claude Neal, a black laborer on a farm in Marianna. He and Lola Cannady, who was a white woman, were known to be having relations, according to Dunn. Cannady was found dead and Neal was the prime suspect.
To protect Neal from a lynch mob that was forming, the Jackson County Sherriff moved him from Marianna to different jails in the area and, eventually, to Brewton, Ala. But Neal was forcibly returned to Marianna and lynched.
The hanging of Neal by a group known as the “Committee of Six” caused outrage and the incidence of lynching nationwide began to decrease.
Dunn said that he has spoken with descendants in Marianna and knows the names of the members of the “Committee of Six” but would not reveal them.
Kamau Nkosi, 57, who immigrated from England when he was 12 and lives in Fort Lauderdale, said he knew about the Rosewood massacre.
“I did not know about the others,” he said. Nkosi said that other than learning about the other cases of lynching in Florida, he also learned about the definition of the crime.
Dunn said that he believes the last known lynching in Florida occurred in the 1980s, during an upheaval in Miami’s Liberty City community. A white male was pulled from his car, beaten by blacks and died, he said.
“What is the difference between this act and past acts?” Dunn asked. Dunn said he is continuing his research into Rosewood and has purchased land where parts of a railroad ran through the town. On that land, he has discovered items such as rings, belt buckles, a sword and a matchbox.
If the state wants to create a park memorializing Rosewood, he would donate the land, he said. “It’s Florida’s story,” Dunn said. “These stories have to be told, however bad they are.”