Years before the Confederate flag unquestionably and universally became correlated with racial and religious hate and bigotry, just spotting it on a pick-up truck, flapping from a stratospheric flagpole, or as head-to-toe garb, terrified me.
Then came Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine Black church members at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. They welcomed him to their Bible study and prayed with him that fateful June evening in 2015, and then he slaughtered them. Roof revered the Confederate flag. A month after the massacre horrified the world, South Carolina lawmakers eventually found the will to remove the hateful symbol from their Statehouse grounds.
A few days ago, the city of Charlottesville, Va., removed statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The action came four years after white supremacists stormed the city to protest a plan to banish the Lee statute from public property. Heather Heyer, a young white woman known for her commitment to fighting injustice, lost her life that day as she rallied against the violent neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan devotees.
The removal of the racist dog whistles got me thinking about St. Petersburg. Mere days after the white supremacists’ protest in Charlottesville, Mayor Rick Kriseman announced he had ordered the removal of a Stonewall Jackson marker at Central Avenue and Bayshore Drive that had been installed in 1939 by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. If, like me, you were wondering where the marker went to next, Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said Thursday that it had been retrieved by a member of the Confederate group.
And last fall, in a historic turnabout for a city that condoned and celebrated the lynching of laborer John Evans over a century ago, St. Petersburg unveiled a statue of African-American pioneer and businessman Elder Jordan Sr. It was the first statue of its kind to be commissioned by the city. Jordan, a former slave, was a successful farmer near Fort White in Columbia County before moving to St. Petersburg in 1904. He became a pioneer Black developer. His name graced Jordan Park Elementary School, which opened in 1926. The Jordan Park public housing development also bears his name. Jordan and his sons built the Historic Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street S – the Deuces – on what would become the Black entertainment and business district.
It might not be widely known that Elder Jordan Sr.’s name is among 600 others displayed on a 20-foot obelisk in Pioneer Park along St. Petersburg’s prized waterfront. The park at Central Avenue and Beach Drive was dedicated on Nov. 26, 1981, “to the memory of the Pioneers and their families whose vision and leadership helped create St. Petersburg, Florida.”
The park and its monument were the ideas of Jay B. Starkey Sr., son of St. Petersburg pioneers. Starkey also contributed a substantial sum to the project. The obelisk, overlooked by Bayfront Tower, includes the names of at least three other African-American pioneers. John Donaldson was the first black man to own property in Pinellas County. George W. Perkins moved to St. Petersburg in 1925, became the first principal of Jordan Elementary School and went on to head Gibbs High School. Perkins Elementary School is named in his honor. There is also Chester James Sr., remembered as an untiring advocate for the revitalization of Methodist Town and securing decent housing for his community.
As heartening as it is to stand in scenic Pioneer Park and find the handful of names of Black pioneers among the hundreds of early white settlers – among them Al Lang, Paul Poynter, C. M. Roser, Dixie M. Hollins, C. Perry Snell and W. L. Straub – the honor is quite possibly tainted by a horrific crime perpetrated in 1914.
That was the year John Evans was lynched by a mob of white St. Petersburg residents, his hanging body riddled with bullets fired from a crowd of more than a thousand. In 1983, my friend and former Tampa Bay Times colleague Jon Wilson interviewed a witness to that racial terror.
Wilson is now writing a book, Days of Fear: A Lynching in St. Petersburg, with Jane A. McNeil, about the execution and its many unanswered questions about truth and justice. The book is actually based on a 1983 article that Wilson wrote and that was published in the Tampa Bay History journal.
Here is some of what eyewitness Luther Atkins, a white man, told Wilson about the lynching of John Evans on Nov. 12, 1914: “Little kids with guns were shootin,’ and women standin’ there shootin’ and screamin’ and yellin’ and – and shootin.’ It was the damnedest mess you ever heard in your life, you never heard anything like it.”
It happened that Atkins also was a witness to the dedication of Pioneer Park. What he told Wilson about that event and some of the people who sat on the stage that day is almost as chilling as his account of the lynching.
Wilson shared part of his conversation with Atkins this week. “He had been relating what he saw and felt on the night of the lynching. He interrupted himself, adding kind of a parenthetical expression that some of the people being honored for Pioneer Park had taken part in the episode,” Wilson said. “When I tried to follow up with him the next day, he was very gruff and said he wasn’t going to talk about it again.”
But we must.
The cruelties and hatred of the past are not something to hide from. In February, a lynching memorial marker was unveiled at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and Second Avenue, near the site where John Evans’ life was gleefully taken and his body desecrated. The historical marker was arranged by the Pinellas Remembers Community Remembrance Project Coalition, which partnered with the national Equal Justice Initiative. Of all the lynchings carried out in Pinellas County, Pinellas Remembers notes that those of John Evans and Parker Watson, who was lynched on May 9, 1926, are the only ones that have been fully documented.
Life is complicated, isn’t it? I may be naïve, but I’d like to believe it must be incredibly wrenching for some of those who are aware of the role their families played in the murder of another human being. For others, though, maybe not.
In justifying the lynching of John Evans, eyewitness Atkins offered a rationale that’s not uncommon even in these days: “It was something that had to be done to protect our wives and children.”
It’s the reason for the hysteria surrounding the much misunderstood and maligned critical race theory and the weeping over making “our children” feel guilty for being white.
For those rushing to stuff their ears with cotton in a bid to “cancel” this country’s shameful history of slavery, lynchings, callousness and inequality, just know that for many Black people, the pain and nagging, low-grade unease of racism are a constant.