Lynch ceremony in reminiscence of the 1925 homicide of the Jacksonville police drive, depicting the black man’s physique

Willie Washington, a 22-year-old chauffeur, was shot dead in his family’s downtown home on January 31, 1925.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Almost a century after his death by police, Jacksonville people will remember this weekend of a black man whose body was exposed to the curious as a victim of a racial terrorist lynching.

Willie Washington, a 22-year-old chauffeur, was shot dead in his family’s downtown home on January 31, 1925 after a week’s manhunt for an unnamed black man who had assaulted a white society woman.

What happened after the shooting turned his death into lynching.

“The negro’s body was exhibited at 11 a.m. yesterday after a conference of local officials,” the Times-Union reported at the time.

“It remained on view in the district prison’s rotunda until 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon. Hundreds of people streamed through the rotunda during the day to see the remains of the brown criminal who stirred Jacksonville to an excitement that has not been seen in decades. “

96 years later, participants in the Jacksonville Community Remembrance Project will remember Washington’s death, an initiative that uses the history of local lynching to open dialogue about races and address the legacy of racist violence.

“Wherever people are willing to talk about racing, we’ll be there,” said Kimberly Allen, CEO of 904WARD, the nonprofit that organized the volunteer-run remembrance project.

The project organizers have planned a soil-collecting ceremony in which the soil around the spot where a lynch victim died will be collected in jars marked with his or her name. One is sent to a national memorial in Alabama and another is kept on site.

The ceremony, scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m., is part spiritual, part historical, and informative, said Lynn Sherman, co-chair of the memorial project.

It will be held online to avoid exposing people to health threats from COVID-19, and organizers are planning post-event discussions on the “Care Circle” so people can share their thoughts. 904WARD registered participants through its Facebook page.

Washington lynches just one of many

Organizers have identified eight deaths in Duval County as lynchings, part of a wave of racial violence that reached 20 states between the 1870s and 1950s.

Washington’s death was not on that list when Memorial Project volunteers met about three years ago and investigated local murders. They had received a number of leads on lynching collected by the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, including a 1925 story in a black newspaper in New York about racist violence in Jacksonville.

The Florida State College of Jacksonville History Professor Scott Matthews read back in the Jacksonville newspapers from the weeks leading up to this story and said it had found something completely unexpected.

The Times-Union and other Florida newspapers reported that in January, black men attacked Jacksonville white women and whites – police, sheriff MPs, and members of the public – were looking for those responsible.

When police reached Washington’s family home at 426 W. Union St. and hurled tear gas into the attic to get him out, the “most intense search for men” ended [the] History of the county, ”read a Times Union headline.

Although Washington was shot, white vigilantes wanted more and talked about burning his body, according to newspaper reports that police were guarding the morgue to keep crowds away.

Mayor John T. Alsop, three judges, Sheriff WH Dowling, the city’s police chef and local leaders spoke to each other, the Times Union reported before agreeing to take the body to jail for people to see for themselves that he was dead.

“This was little more than the police found her husband and shot him dead,” said Scott Matthews, a Florida State College at the Jacksonville History Professor who was investigating Washington’s death for the memorial project. “The broader white community of Jacksonville needed security.”

But that assurance, which the newspaper called “an object hour,” was also a kind of terror inflicted on Washington’s families and blacks at large, Sherman said.

She said Sheriff Mike Williams hired two administrators from the Sheriff’s Office to represent the agency at the ceremony and others had expressed an interest in attending. A number of city officials have been invited, Sherman said, but it’s not clear if there is a plan to attend.

Washington will be the fifth person to be commemorated by a ground-collecting ceremony in Jacksonville. The organizers have made plans to later put historical markers on the lynching sites.

You can read more from our partners at the Florida Times Union.

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