Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Sad Tale Of Murder In North Florida


The Miami Herald, did a news story on an injustice that occurred over 60 years ago, here in my home realm of North Florida. (Click picture on left for video)

I love living here, with its countryside aura, amidst nature, away from the hustle, bustle and stress of a major city.

The mornings are the best but if something brings you to your front porch in the middle of the night, you get to feel and hear the music of nocturnal creatures who own the darkness. Moonlight is the only illumination, which allows you to view, subtle movements of moss laden tree branches swaying in the moist breezes.

One feels somewhat, safe here today. But not so long ago, during the time when people were denied their civil rights; BARBARISM ruled and was allowed to go unchecked. Law enforcers had actionable license to look the other way when it came to assaults, perpetrated by those reared with a daily dose of prejudice and bigotry.

I am so glad someone brought back, out of obscurity, the story of Willie James Howard. Murdered, due to hatred, hostility and disgust by one group of homo-sapiens towards another body of same breed. Hatred with no foundation... insane antagonism without reason.

Objectivity, is freedom. When one can think impartially it allows a person to view such a story as this, with great sorrow. A sadness for our species and a grief for the unrestrained atrocities our kind is capable of. thinkingblue

PS: Read below the tale of a teenage boy who's only crime, only sin was to look upon a young girl with adoration. A condition of youth, that is so part of our journey through life. But with intolerant blindness can and was looked upon as a deviation or a contradiction to Life's perpetuation of the species. We've come along way since those dark days of discrimination but, as the saying goes, we've got a long, long way to go!

The legacy of Willie James

Six decades after Willie James Howard was
killed in the small town of Live Oak for having a crush on a
white girl, his death -- one of the country's few remaining
unresolved civil rights cases -- is driving a demand for
It's a beautiful day, warm and still like summer, but
Samuel Beasley just doesn't want to be here. Hasn't been since he
was a boy. Even though he has lived most of his 63 years near the
Suwannee River, its shallow waters, its limestone banks, its old
oak trees swagged in moss.

Too much pain, 60 years, maybe more. Beasley, gentle and wise
and plain-spoken, knows something about this place and its people.
Something about what can happen when a black boy likes a white
girl. Something that lingers and haunts, that distorts the soul
long after a Sunday afternoon years ago.

''The river is evil,'' Beasley says softly of this tea-colored
ribbon. ``It took too many of our people. It took Willie James.''

It is here, just where the water puddles and the sky opens,
that Willie James Howard, perhaps the one black boy in town whom
everybody believed had a shot at something good, was taken. Just
15, he was dragged from his home at gunpoint, hogtied and forced
into the river on Jan. 2, 1944, by three white men for the
cultural offense of having a crush on one of their daughters.

He was never seen alive again. But was he never forgotten in
the black community, his death affecting the people of Live Oak in
sometimes unexpected ways.

''We need what really happened to come out. Everybody needs to
know the truth,'' says Beasley, a former councilman who was
elected as the first black to serve on the council since

To appreciate the legacy of Willie James is to understand how
three men -- a cousin of the dead boy, a funeral director and a
Miami historian -- men without much in common beyond a deep sense
of loss, have come to demand justice.

Eleven years before Emmett Till was lynched for whistling at a
white woman in Mississippi, an atrocity that helped launch the
civil rights movement, the Willie James Howard story became a
cautionary tale about what happens when blacks cross the line.
Under the patina of good race relations, progress and Southern
hospitality, the story, in all its layers, still resonates in this
sawmill town.

''I can remember hearing the story like it was last week,''
Beasley says. ``It was a huge story. It defined us.''

There were no arrests; there was no trial, just a stunted
investigation typical of the civil rights crimes of the era. Among
the activists who rallied for justice: A young attorney named
Thurgood Marshall, who later would sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, all these years later, Miami historian Marvin Dunn, who is
writing a book about lynchings in Florida, has asked Attorney
General (and Gov.-elect) Charlie Crist to reopen the case -- one
of the country's few remaining unresolved civil rights cases.

''We are interested and reviewing the facts and documents,''
says Allison Bethel, head of the state civil rights office.

Though the suspects are long dead, Crist or his successor, Bill
McCollum, has the power to pursue the case, as a new generation of
prosecutors has reopened other cases across the the South. These
''atonement trials'' include last year's conviction of Edgar Ray
Killen in the murders of three civil rights workers in

''The clock does not stop ticking on this kind of offense,''
says Dunn, a retired Florida International University professor
who ran across the case while researching his book.

''I got so angry when I read about the case. He was just a a
child,'' Dunn says. ``This community needs a real investigation.
They need healing.''


Willie James Howard was supposed to be somebody. Relatives and
friends say he had that hard-to-pinpoint, hard-to-explain thing,
uprightness, perhaps, that somehow would have propelled him into
respectability, past the grim, one-dimensional landscape of black
life in the 1940s South. They talk lovingly about the boy who was
so special because he worked at the white-owned dime store

''He was going to grow up to be good and right. Just made a
mistake, and them mean folk got him,'' Mammie Perry, 95, the boy's
aunt and oldest living kin, says from her house in Orlando.

''Put you in the mind of a Will Smith. He was charming,'' says
Dorothy DePass, a former classmate. ``Everybody knew Willie James,
and everybody called him by both names.''

By all accounts, Willie James, also called Giddy Boy for his
good nature, was smart, funny, good-looking, popular, a great
singer -- and smitten with Cynthia Goff, a white girl he worked
with after school at Van Priest's. They were the same age, 10th
graders who attended segregated schools just a few hundred yards

During the Christmas break in 1943, Willie James gave Goff and
his other co-workers holiday cards. He signed the one for Goff,
``With L [Love].''

Perhaps she was vexed that a Negro had given her a card, his
gesture too familiar, too presumptive for the social attitudes of
the time. So Willie James wrote an apology dated Jan. 1, 1944.

``I know you don't think much of our kind but we don't hate
you all. [W]e want to be your friends but you w[o]n't let us. . .
. I wish this was [a] northern state[.] I guess you call me fresh.
Write an[d] tell me what you think of me good or bad. . . . I love
your name. I love your voice, for a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my

Goff gave the letter to her father, A. Phillip Goff, a former
state legislator, who recruited two friends to pay a visit to the
Howard home on Jan. 2.

According to the affidavit given by Lula Howard in March, 1944,
the men took her son from their front porch at gunpoint. They then
went to the Bond-Howell Lumber Company, where the boy's father
worked. They picked James Howard up and headed to the river eight
miles outside of town.

''I tried to pull him away and also kept pleading and asking
what Willie had done,'' Lula Howard's affidavit reads. ``By this
time Mr. Goff had pulled out a revolver from somewhere on his
person and leveled it at me. . . . I ran after the car which got
away from me.''

What happens clouds the town's memory even today.

''I think this case can open some wounds,'' says Jim McCullers,
city clerk and a distant cousin of one of the men accused. ``But
wrong is wrong.''

What is known for sure: Hours after his mother last saw him,
Willie James Howard was dead. The black undertaker was ordered to
retrieve the body from the river, and Willie James was buried
almost immediately. No farewell, no funeral.

Goff would later tell the Suwannee County sheriff that he and
the other men simply wanted to discipline the boy for getting
fresh with Cynthia. They admitted to binding Willie James to keep
him from running while he was being punished by his father. They
claimed he became hysterical, and despite being hogtied, jumped
into the river.

Suicide, they said. A tragic drowning.

James Howard told a far more heart-breaking story. When
questioned by the State Attorney almost six weeks later, he said
the men had forced him to watch his only child die.

He said that by the time they got to the river, he knew his son
would never leave alive.

''Willie, I cannot do anything for you now. I'm glad I have
belonged to the Church and prayed for you,'' he recalled in his


He said Willie James was given a choice: Jump in the river or
be shot.

Willie James jumped.

And then the men took Howard back to work. He finished his

''We found out at school the next day. It was so scary, but
that was life in the 1940s. We thought the KKK were coming to get
the rest of us,'' says DePass, 78, a retired teacher.

Within days, the Howards had sold their house and moved to

''As soon as I saw my sister she told me what happened. She
cried and cried and cried. She said she held on to Willie James
tight, but they had a gun,'' Perry says.

Pressured by the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People, the state briefly reviewed the case. Thurgood
Marshall, who learned of it from a black attorney visiting Live
Oak over the Christmas holidays, demanded that Gov. Spessard
Holland fully investigate. A grand jury was impaneled but refused
to indict.


For half a century -- its passage marked by the Till murder,
the beginnings of the civil rights movement and the deaths of his
parents -- Willie James Howard lay in an unmarked grave at the
once ''coloreds-only'' Eastside Cemetery. His ugly death remained
a whispered memory until Douglas Udell, a funeral director, was
researching the records of a black undertaker whose space he was
renting. He found the log of Willie James' death, with the
notation ''lynched'' and the initials of the three men accused.

The record piqued Udell's interest and released a flood of
memories. His own great-grandfather was lynched in the 1920s, his
partial skull and pocket knife found when Udell was a teenager.
``I started looking into it. He had no birth certificate and no
death certificate. It's like Willie James Howard doesn't exist.
And 60 years is an awful long time for the soul to lay in the
earth without recognition.''

So last year, Udell, a Suwannee County commissioner, bought a
headstone for $250 and organized a memorial service. The headstone
reads: Willie J. Howard, born 7-13-28, Died 1-2-44, Murdered by
Three Racist

On Jan. 2, 2005, exactly 61 years after Willie James' death, a
service was held at Springfield Baptist Church, where the family
had worshipped. The congregation prayed and sang I'll Fly Away.

A typical Live Oak funeral draws about 125 people. Two hundred
came to say goodbye to Willie James.

''It was so emotional. People who knew Willie James got up and
talked. People cried,'' Udell says. ``It was like he had died

Then, a procession to the cemetery was led by Live Oak Sheriff
Tony Cameron, and the headstone was placed on the grave. A few of
Willie James' cousins rode in a midnight blue limousine.

''I just felt like there was nothing I could do for my
granddaddy,'' says Udell, but there was something I could do for
Willie James.''


CAROLYNCONNETION - I've got a mind and I'm going to use it!

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