Of soil and protest

by E. Stanley Richardson
Alachua County Poet Laureate

On Saturday, Feb. 20, at twelve o’clock high noon, the Gainesville Community Remembrance Project held a soil collection ceremony outside on the lawn of the Alachua County Administration Building Headquarters in Gainesville, Florida.

The Soil Collection ceremony is part of the Alachua County Truth and Reconciliation Project to remember Alachua County’s lynching victims and other victims of racial terror perpetrated by white mobs.

“The Equal Justice Initiative has partnered with community coalitions across the nation to collect soil from every lynching site as an act of remembrance and commitment to honoring the victims of this horrific era of terror. 

The EJI soil collection project is intended to provide opportunities for community members to get closer to the legacy of lynching and to contribute to the effort to build a lasting and more visible memory of our history of racial injustice. These jars of collected soil are on exhibit in the new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, as well as in other exhibit spaces, to reflect the history of lynching and our generations’ resolve to confront the continuing challenges that racial inequality creates.” 

Equal Justice Initiative, 2021

The Gainesville Community Remembrance Project is a subcommittee of the Alachua County Commission Remembrance Project in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

About 150 community members, including  elected officials, concerned citizens and relatives of the slain, gathered on the grounds in a socially distanced area to pay their tribute. The location was the closest area to the actual lynching site, said guest speakers.

The ceremony began with a musical tribute by Mr. Lanard Perry on trumpet and the pouring of libation by Mr. Nii “Pa Pa” Sowa-La and Ms. Ayoka Sowa-la.

Welcoming remarks were given by The Honorable  Charles S. Chestnut of the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners. The Invocation was given by Rev. Gerard Duncan, Sr Pastor of Prayers by Faith Ministries.  

Rev. Carl Smart, Assistant County Manager of Alachua County, gave a presentation entitled “Remembering Lynching Victims in Gainesville.” The ceremony also included prayers, song and poetry.

Equal Justice Initiative representative Ms. Bre Lamkin traveled from Montgomery, Alabama, and spoke about other important work of EJI is doing throughout the United States, and in particular, to abolish the death penalty and to provide free legal representation to individuals sentenced to death, and children who are given life sentences.

The ceremony concluded with remarks from a relative of Lester Watts. Watts was lynched on March 21, 1942. Watts family members thanked the Gainesville community for remembering and honoring their slain ancestor.

Victims of lynchings in Gainesville were:

Mr. Stephens
Harry Franklin
Alexander Morris
Sandy Hacock
Henry Washington
Christopher Cummings
Eli (last name unknown)
Tony Champion (and his associate, Mr Kelly)
Andrew Ford
Alfred Daniels
Lester Watts

During the commemorative moment community members transferred soil taken from the lynching site into jars labeled with the names of the lynching victims.

A similar ceremony soil collection ceremony was held Feb. 5 in the City of Newberry at the infamous Lynch Hammock fairgrounds, where in 1916, six people were lynched. Another soil collection ceremony is planned for the city of Alachua organized by the Alachua/Newnansville Subcommittee. The ceremony is to take place in the area of Newnansville at a date to be determined.

During the same time as the Gainesville Soil collection ceremony was taking place, members of Goddsville Dream Defenders marched from J. Wayne Reitz Union on the UF campus. The event “Blacked Out History March” was organized by the Gainesville Squad of Dream Defenders,” in solidarity with the University of Florida’s Black Student Union, BHM Cabinet and community members. The march went through the Pleasant Street community, around NW 6th Street, to show the results of gentrification of the area of a once prosperous African American community.

Through the chanting, the crowd was reminded that every movement has a soundtrack and young people are always at the forefront of the social justice struggle. The two events were indicative of America’s ongoing systemic ills. 

A video of the Feb. 20 ceremony at the Alachua County Administration Building can be seen on Facebook at  https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1183.

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