A memorial marker will be installed in St. Petersburg to provide a visual reminder of the city’s racial history, while raising awareness of the painful legacy borne from lynchings and racial violence.
The initiative is being spearheaded by the Pinellas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition, which includes representatives from USF’s St. Petersburg campus, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, the Florida State Senate and the NAACP.
“By memorializing victims of this racial terror, hopefully you get people to pay attention to and talk about this history and perhaps it leads to reconciliation of racial tension that exists in the U.S.,” said coalition co-chair Jacqueline Hubbard.
More than 300 reported lynchings occurred in Florida between 1877 and 1950. Only two lynchings in St. Petersburg have been fully documented, according to the coalition.
In 1914, John Evans was accused of murdering real estate developer Ed Sherman and attacking his wife, though he was never identified and never received a trial. On the evening of November 12, a mob took Evans from his jail cell and hanged him from a light post in front of a crowd of 1,500 people gathered at Ninth Street – now Martin Luther King Jr. Street – and Second Ave South. As he struggled to hold himself up, a woman drove by and shot him, leading the crowd to follow suit with weapons of their own.
“His body was left hanging there for quite some time after as a reminder to the black community,” said Julie Armstrong, an English professor at the USF St. Petersburg campus. “This event was the very definition of a spectacle lynching, and it sent a message about white supremacy and white hierarchy.”
Twelve years later, Parker Watson was being transported to the county jail in Clearwater when he was abducted by a group of armed men. His bullet-riddled body was found on an isolated road, and he had what appeared to be acid on his face. Unlike Evans, Watson’s lynching was widely condemned, and the county commission offered a reward of $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the men responsible for his death. The perpetrators were never identified.
With racial unrest continuing to sweep the country, the coalition has teamed up with the national nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that advocates for equality and reform in the criminal justice system. Along with local community partners, EJI will fund the St. Petersburg memorial as part of its national effort to establish spaces that will address the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation.
The City of St. Petersburg is donating space for the memorial, which is scheduled to be installed at the site of the lynching this year on November 12, the anniversary of the Evans lynching. Aside from the memorial, the coalition is continuing to research and uncover other lynchings that have happened in the region. They’re in the process of creating an archive at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library that will contain newspaper articles, diary entries and photographs from the era. An essay contest is also planned to spark conversations about racial issues that continue to affect the community.
“The marker is really just a jumping off point,” said Armstrong, who is drafting the text for the historical marker. “There are deep race and class divides still that we need to honestly address, and the marker is one step in that process that we hope can lead to greater community conversations.”