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Burned into Memory: An African American Recalls Mob Violence in Early 20th century Florida

The threat of lynching was a powerful mechanism for keeping black Southerners in line. Although this interview (conducted by historian Charles Hardy for a radio program) took place in 1985, “William Brown” (a pseudonym) could still vividly recall the smell of burning flesh that lingered after a 1902 lynching that he witnessed in Jacksonville, Florida, when he was five years old.

Listen to Audio:

William Brown: Two of ‘em would always be together. “Say look, don’t he look like the guy that raped that white woman the other day?” The guy looks. “Yeah, he does look like him. Say, did you rape?” "No, I didn’t do anything like . . .“ "Well come on, let’s go on down there. Let’s go on down to the station. Let’s see what we can find out about you.” Take you right on away. If you got a ticket goin’ somewhere by the time they let you go, that ticket wouldn’t be any good.

But did you know, I was glad when there was an opportunity, when I had the opportunity to get away from there, because I know they’re beginning to find that out about me. You see I never said,“Yes Sir” and “No Sir,” because they never said that to any of our grown people, and a little cracker that high’d call us “niggers.” And while I wouldn’t say “Yes Sir, No Sir,” I didn’t be dictatorial about it. I was kind of humble-like, submissive-like, you know. And I would—if he wanted me to do somethin'—I would jump like that, and “all right,” ya know. I’m “yes suh” and “oh, oh no.” "All right" just like that.

Just before I had an opportunity to leave there during the first World War one guy said to me, “Do you think he’s one of them uppity niggers?” He didn’t know I heard him. When I heard I said,“Oh, my God.” I said, “They’re gonna get on to me pretty soon.” And if I knew if they had said that, and labeled me with that I wouldn’t never been alive today because I would of killed one of 'em.

You see, we had to live so dangerously down there. My mother told me, said, “Son, I know you’re a good boy. You don’t, haven’t given me any trouble, but if they ever put their hand on you they’ll trump up something, and they’ll never let you get away.” And I knew that, 'cause I guess I was about, well, not quite five years old.

But they had a big cross. The Klu Klux Klan, they burned a Negro right at the stake there. And oh, it was a terrible thing. You could smell his burning flesh five miles and it was a terrible thing. And do you know, those Klu Klux Klan after the flames were over, and he was burnt to a crisp, go around and cut things off of him—off of the fingers and toes—and give to these white women. And they’d take ‘em home, the white women with their children, take ’em home, and put ‘em in glass jars and set ’em on the mantle piece. “And those? Well this is what we do to niggers. See that nigger’s toes, this nigger’s uh, uh, uh?”

You see those are the things that made me know that they ever put their hand on me, I would kill ‘em just as long as I could. Because I know what they would do. They’ll punish me, and make me suffer. But I know if I started to killin’ 'em, they’d kill me just like that and I’d be gone.

Source: Charles Hardy III, Horizons (Washington D.C.: National Public Radio, 1985), West Chester University.

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"I Was More of a Citizen": A Puerto Rican Garment Worker Describes Discrimination in the 1920s