A recent plaque from theEqual Justice Initiative (EJI) Community Remembrance Project.
A marker from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Community Remembrance Project.

By Su Byron

The horrific crime of lynching erases a human life. Far too often, the records of those crimes have been erased from America’s historical memory. That’s a crime in itself.

But people are now working hard to set the record straight. And New College has partnered with Sarasota-Manatee’s Boxser Diversity Initiative to commemorate local victims of racist terrorism. It’s all thanks to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Community Remembrance Project, an initiative that memorializes documented victims of racial violence with narrative markers installed at lynching sites in communities throughout the nation.

Racist violence is a long and bloody chapter of American history. EJI studies reveal that more than 4,400 Black people were lynched in acts of racist terror across the South between 1877 and 1950. At least six of those murders happened close to home—in Manatee County, an area that was divided into Sarasota and Manatee counties in 1921.

Area civic leaders, activists and educators have joined forces with EJI to document these acts of racial terror in our region. The Boxser Diversity Initiative has spearheaded this regional effort, which has already received wide community support, including from many area charitable foundations: Newtown Alive, the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, the Sarasota Black Arts Collaborative, the City of Sarasota, and New College.

“We’re proud to be a part of this coalition,” said New College President Donal O’Shea. “It’s a sign of our college’s shared values. We’re deeply committed to this project.”

Jessica Young, Ph.D., an assistant professor of English at New College and member of the Committee on Campus Climate and Culture (4C), shares that commitment.

“To repair the racial injustices of today, we need to remember the racial violence and injustices of the past,” Young said. “Commemorating these local tragedies is an important step in that direction.”

Uzi Baram, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology and heritage studies at New College, has long shown allegiance with area-based racial justice and multicultural causes. His “Looking for Angola” project uncovered the story of the Angola freedom seekers—a group of former slaves who created a community of their own in the Sarasota-Manatee region.

Baram describes the Community Remembrance Project as “the first step to commemorate those people who were killed. I’m fascinated by the courage of the local African-American community, and how determined they were to pass that courage on to their children and grandchildren. It’s vital to remember their names and to recognize their trauma. Knowing about this past helps us build community for those who seek justice.”

Bringing the tragic history of local lynching to light demands hard work. As with so many other American cities, our area’s history of racist violence has been deliberately buried. Boxser Diversity Initiative researcher Hope Black is still unearthing acts of racial terror in our region’s past. As of this writing, Black’s research team has documented six local lynching victims: Henry Thomas, Sam Ellis, Wade Ellis, Ruddy March, William English, and James Franklin.

The historical marker commemorating their lives will be a part of the future Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum, which is planned for the Newtown community.

What makes the marker so important?

“Because the lost lives it documents were important,” said Dan Boxser, the founder and president of the Boxser Diversity Initiative. “It’s important to fully understand our history and the racial violence that was here, and how we can learn from it. Black lives matter, both yesterday and today. For the healing to begin, we need to remember their names.”

Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.

Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is a top-ranked public liberal arts college and the state’s Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in arts, humanities and sciences, a master’s degree program in applied data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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