Newspaper articles from June 15, 1923 regarding the death of Homestead Town Marshal Charles D. Bryant and the resulting mob lynching of two Black men, William Simmons and Roy Gaines. PHOTO COURTESY OF ISLANDERNEWS.COM
MIAMI – When the sun rose on the morning of Friday, June 15, 1923, one hundred years ago this week in the town of Homestead in south Dade County Fla., it could hardly have been imagined that before the end of that day at least three lives would be lost, suddenly, unexpectedly and violently, in a circumstance with roots, ramifications, and repercussions that
reach far beyond that moment and those city boundaries, and still haunt us today.
On that day, two African American men, William “Grey Eye” Simmons, and Roy Gaines, met death at the hands of a lynch mob, following the death of Homestead Town Marshal Charles D. Bryant from gunshot wounds in a deadly tussle with Simmons for the officer’s weapon at a boarding house in the city’s Negro section.
Simmons attempted to flee the scene in a truck that was parked nearby but was apprehended in short order by the frenzied mob, who left his bullet-riddled body tied to a tree on Silver Palm Drive (SW 232nd Street) about a half mile west of US1.
Gaines, accused of somehow being an accomplice in Marshal’s death, fled south but also died riddled with bullets “at some distance from the road” between Florida City and present-day Everglades National Park.
A Larger Pattern
Far from being an isolated incident, the marshal’s death, and the two known lynchings which followed had national and statewide implications, both in their historical causes and continuing effects, in addition to the profound immediate local impact on the community at the time.
It is notable, for example that these cases took their place among the more than 4,000 recorded lynchings of African Americans alone (not even counting other ethnicities) in the U.S., and that Florida has the distinction of being the state with the highest per-capita rate of lynchings in the nation.
And it is known (despite current efforts to suppress the truth of history) that the uniquely American human-sacriﬁce rituals known as lynchings (legally deﬁned as extrajudicial attacks by three or more persons that result in the death of the victim) represented but a fraction of general “racialized” terror and violence, which, in the 20th century alone, included wanton attacks, known as “race riots” on entire Black communities, and innumerable murders by single individuals or violence that produced injuries short of actual death, with all such acts producing a ripple effect of shared trauma passed on the subsequent generations as well.
Moreover, it is no idle coincidence that these South Dade lynchings in Florida occurred during a period of dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) around the nation and in many Florida counties, including Levy on the Gulf coast and Dade, as it was known then.
1923: A Notable Year
Against this historical backdrop, 1923 emerges as a particularly signiﬁcant year for racist terrorism, literally beginning on January 1 with the lynching of Mr. Sam Carter in the virtually all-Black Levy County town of Rosewood, launching eight days of violence that erased the town from the map, with the actual number of deaths remaining a mystery.
Six months later, closer to home in South Florida, on June 7 of that year, ninety miles north of Homestead, only eight days before the lynchings of Simmons and Gaines, a Bahamian resident named Henry Simmons (no relation to William) was abducted from his home and lynched on Palm Beach island, although he had no connection to the crime for which the mob was seeking the alleged perpetrators, but he was known as an outspoken activist for equal rights.
The Local Picture: ‘Connecting the Dots’ Most news stories of the June 15, 1923, lynchings in South Dade focus on Town Marshal Charles Dewey Bryant and the immense popularity he enjoyed, leading to a predictably heightened sense of shock and outrage as word spread of his death at the hands of a Negro assailant.
Some of that popularity continues today, if any indication can be drawn from the reflections posted by visitors to the very useful ofﬁcer Down Memorial Page (ODMP) website which honors the memory of fallen law enforcement ofﬁcers in the line of duty and provides a brief synopsis of the events of June 15, 1923 in Homestead.
However, there are numerous more signiﬁcant points to the story than those website vistors might ﬁnd, which shed valuable light on understanding the full history:
■ By any measure of universal human compassion, Marshal Bryant and his children are due some sympathy and condolences, as their wife and mother, respectively, had passed away only a week before, making the teenaged children orphans upon their father’s death.
■ However, another side of the story that must also be recognized is that the marshal’s funeral was one of the largest in Dade County history at the time and was mainly organized and attended by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
■ News articles of the time made no mention of Bryant’s connection to MiamiDade’s ﬁrst recorded lynching, of 19-year-old J.B. Harris in 1920, as the arresting ofﬁcer who would release his prisoner to the lynch mob that hanged the youth.
■ That lynching also took place on Silver
Palm Drive, reportedly on property owned by Charles R. Graham, whose prominent home on that street still stands, and who served on the coroner’s jury afterwards that could not ﬁnd anyone to charge with the crime, which ultimately went unpunished.
■ Graham and Bryant served a stint of several months together as Deputies in the Dade County Sheriff’s department, focusing aggressively on enforcement of Prohibition laws, the very issue that allegedly took Bryant to the rooming house in Homestead where he confronted “Grey Eye” Simmons, after he returned to his position as Town Marshal.
While these aspects of the case are not included on the ODMP website, it does offer other valuable insights, like a map showing the location of the boarding house in Homestead, and a profound statement which might potentially shed signiﬁcant new light of its own on the full story: “An angry mob lynched the man [Simmons] and three other people [emphasis added] in retaliation for Marshal Bryant’s murder.”
Thus far, only two recorded lynchings, of Simmons and Gaines, have been recognized, but this statement seems to conﬁrm emerging evidence and speculations that suggest that Mrs. Mary Cuzzins, “the aged Negress” who operated the rooming house, might have been a third victim of the mob frenzy, and that there may also be at least an identiﬁable fourth person.
The Path Ahead
“Justice deferred is justice denied,” and no matter how many years pass after incidents like lynchings, even if the perpetrators might never be identiﬁed by name, the crime, and the traumatic consequences for families, descendants, and whole communities remain, and the full scope of the injustice must be recognized to bring about any measure of reconciliation.
For this reason, local coalitions like the Miami-Dade Truth, Education, and Reconciliation [TEAR] initiative have been established in counties around the nation to implement Community Remembrance Projects in cooperation with EJI, not only to ensure that lynchings are not forgotten, especially in the communities where they occurred, but also, even more importantly, to draw empowerment from the strength, courage, and resilience of those families and communities and to facilitate healing for all of this festering wound, so that our next and future generations can be free of this inherited trauma.