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Filmmaker Alice Brewton Hurwitz stumbled upon an explosive family secret as a 20-year-old.
Her great-great aunt Lillie Davis was robbed, raped and murdered in Pensacola by a black man named Leander Shaw in 1908.
Shaw was lynched by a mob of about 1,000 people in Plaza Ferdinand and the men in her family exacted revenge by killing perhaps hundreds of black men who walked down their street for decades.
Now, a documentary that unlocks her family's secret is set to premiere Friday, April 27 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The feature-length film, "Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence," spotlights the grisly, little-known element of turn-of-the-century Pensacola history—the lynching in the heart of downtown Pensacola July 29, 1908 and the decades-long aftermath of revenge following it.
Hurwitz, who now lives in New York, began investigating the rape and murder of her great-great aunt after hearing the story from her grandmother.
"My grandmother Alice told me this story when I was 20, I guess, when I was old enough to know bad things," she says in the documentary's trailer.
Hurwitz relates that her grandmother told her that Shaw jumped Davis, assaulted her and cut her throat. Shaw was supposedly found soon after rinsing out his bloody shirt in Pensacola Bay.
"I said, 'Grandma, are you sure they had the right man?' She said very quietly, 'Yes,'" Hurwitz says in the haunting and gripping movie trailer.
The conversation led Hurwitz to call Lillie Davis' youngest brothers' two youngest sons.
"He added at the very end of the conversation, 'Well you know, it didn't stop there,'" she says. "I got really quiet and knew a bomb was about to drop."
She went to interview one of her uncles, Joe Petty, who is in his 90s, and says men in the family killed every black man who walked down the dirt road they lived on. A sign was posted near their home that said: "Read nigger and run. If you can't read, run anyhow."
"They'd kill the nigger," Petty says in a thick drawl in the trailer, requiring subtitles. "They'd bury him under a walnut tree. That went on for years."
Based on Petty's story and Hurwitz's research, the State Attorney and Florida Department of Law Enforcement scoured more than 50 acres in 2004 and 2005 for bodies in the outskirts of Pensacola in the Cantonment area pointed out by Petty. Although a rusty old bullet was found, no human remains or other physical evidence was uncovered.
FDLE investigator Dennis Norred says the information fit local folklore and warranted looking into.
"It sounds like a credible story," he says. "Just because we couldn't substantiate the story with physical evidence doesn't mean it's not there."
Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar says all the leads were exhausted and he says no relatives of Shaw were ever found in the area to interview.
"I just wish we knew the answers for everyone," he says. "We could find no tangible evidence. That doesn't mean it didn't happen. But we could not prove that, one, crimes occurred, and, two, we couldn't prove or fix any responsibility to anyone."
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Kermit Harrison, professor of philosophy, racial and gender studies at Pensacola Junior College, was interviewed extensively for the documentary. Harrison hadn't previously known of specific lynchings in Pensacola, but he was aware of existing racial tensions.
Harrison was warned when he moved to Pensacola three years ago that there are certain places on the outskirts of the city that blacks shouldn't go after dark.
"I wasn't told why or what happened, but I had this idea," Harrison says.
Some of the area's current racial problems can be traced to the lynching of Shaw.
The year was 1908. A timeline published by the Pensacola Historical Society only lists for that year the beginning of a building boom, which included the new City Hall (now the T.T. Wentworth Museum).
In fact, 1908 was important for various other reasons. It was a year of high tension throughout Pensacola. A major city streetcar strike occurred in the spring of that year. By the strike's end, conductors had been shot, trolleys had been bombed in East Hill, and the National Guard had been called out to quell riots.
And during the hot summer of 1908, on July 29, a man was lynched in Plaza Ferdinand.
Shaw's lynching was hardly hidden at the time. The Pensacola Journal (predecessor to the Pensacola News Journal) covered the event in such disturbing detail that it is a wonder so few people know of it.
The headlines read: "Negro Who Assaulted Mrs. Davis Lynched By A Mob" and "Leander Shaw Pays Penalty With Life." Another headline announced "Brutal Assault by Burly Negro Upon White Lady."
News reports chronicle the events leading up to the lynching.
Davis—described by the Pensacola Journal as "a good Southern wife" and mother—was allegedly assaulted by a black man. The woman's throat was cut, and she was left to die of her wounds.
Shortly afterward, Shaw, a black man working near Pensacola, was arrested for the crime. Taken to the hospital where Davis was on her deathbed, Shaw was reportedly identified by the dying woman as the man who had assaulted her.
Shaw was taken straight to the city jail (now the Pensacola Museum of Art), where he maintained his innocence for the rest of his very short life.
When word spread of the attack on Davis, a white mob gathered from all parts of the city. The mob had no time for questions or evidence to be presented. It had no time to investigate Shaw's claims of innocence. There was no time for anything except the death of the man the Pensacola Journal called a "burly Negro brute."
The crowd of angry whites congregated in front of the jail. They demanded that Shaw be released to them so he could be lynched.
The Pensacola Journal reported that Sheriff Van Pelt tried to reason with the crowd, but, as their numbers grew, Van Pelt become more concerned that something bad was going to happen.
In an interesting last-ditch move, Van Pelt reportedly deputized the entire crowd. He apparently thought that if members of the mob were deputies, they would have to obey the law and disperse. Instead, one person in the crowd said, "If we're deputies, open the gate and let us in!" Another asked for guns.
In the chaos, an elderly man was shot in the head, which further infuriated the crowd. Some members of the mob scaled the fence surrounding the jail. Once inside the compound, members of the lynch mob soon overpowered the jailors, stole their keys, and seized Shaw from his cell. Shaw was literally dragged around the block and taken to Plaza Ferdinand.
Shaw's badly beaten, but still living, body was hanged by rope from an electric pole near the center of the plaza. While hanging, Shaw was reportedly shot at least 2,000 times by the armed and enraged white mob.
The Pensacola Journal estimated that about 1,000 people—constituting roughly 5 to 10 percent of the entire white population of the city—attended the grisly spectacle in Plaza Ferdinand.
In what was perhaps the understatement of the year, the newspaper wrote that "the magic of the place was off" that night.
To date, no one has been charged or held to account for the lynching of Shaw, nor has anything further been discovered about the attack on Davis.
The only person charged in connection to the incident was a man named Ed Ware. Ware was charged under the obscenity laws at the time for mailing a gruesome postcard to a woman in Jacksonville. On one side of the postcard was a photo of Shaw's lynched body. On the other side, Ware had written, "How is this for the Pensacolians?"
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
The early 1900s were turbulent nationally and locally. Labor, racial and social tensions were coming to a boiling point. The economy was unstable.
Locally, the timber industry—a long-time industrial staple of the area—was in decline. The recent war with Spain had given the Pensacola Navy Yard (not yet a Naval Air Station) a short-lived financial boost. However, by 1908 there were rumors that the base would soon close.
The economic troubles alarmed the whole community, black and white.
Still, Pensacola's black population thrived even in the hard times. An article published in the Florida Historical Quarterly indicated that blacks were the majority population in Pensacola at the turn of the century, and their numbers were growing. This growth was in part due to the relatively prosperous and established black community here.
With reasonably good working conditions and available jobs, Pensacola seemed like a good place for a black family in the South to settle down in the early 1900s. Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington called Pensacola a "typical Negro business community" in reference to the progress made by Southern African-Americans, since their emancipation 40 years earlier.
Pensacola's proximity to Tuskegee University, one of the few institutes where blacks could attain higher education, meant that a segment of blacks in Pensacola were college-educated professionals. About half of the black population here owned their own homes. Many were prominent in the community.
White people still held disproportionate control of the city's power, wealth and industry, but blacks weren't completely left out of the picture.
Then, in 1905 forced segregation came to Pensacola under the name Jim Crow.
The increasing economic and political power of Southern blacks concerned the white population. The growing political power of Pensacola's African-American community was of particular concern to some of the area's white powerbrokers.
Integrated residential areas, locally and throughout the South, were redistricted to separate the races. Black business owners all over the city were given the choice: either move or close. The new racial codes keeping blacks and whites from intermingling were beginning to be strictly enforced.
On top of these factors, 1908 was an election year.
The May 1908 streetcar strike left in its wake considerable tension amongst the city's working class. The Florida Historical Quarterly reports that there was black support for the strike, though the streetcar workers' union—like most unions at the time except the Industrial Workers of the World—was closed to blacks.
Politicians vied for the workingman's vote, but neither Democrats nor Republicans adequately addressed the concerns of all white workers in Pensacola. According to another Florida Historical Quarterly article, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs split the labor vote in Pensacola. In fact, the election of 1908 saw Debs' highest results in Pensacola. Close to 10 percent of the city's voters identified as Socialist or voted for Socialist candidates that year.
Blacks of the time were loyal to the party of Lincoln. In 1908, black Republican loyalty could have meant trouble for Democratic white hegemony in the city if the white vote was split amongst minor parties (Socialist, Independent, Populist and Prohibitionist) and a significant block of voters were black Republicans.
Important to remember is that the Reconstruction Era had ended 30 years earlier. During Reconstruction, Florida had a number of black elected officials.
Pensacola was no exception. According to a book by local African-American historian Georgia McCorvey Smith, "Ebony Tales of Pensacola," Pensacola in the late 1800s elected black aldermen and a black mayor.
However, when Radical Reconstruction ended, the Ku Klux Klan and other like-minded people worked hard to reverse the course the South had taken after the Civil War. Their goal was to make sure that the white Protestant and Anglo-Saxon people who had ruled the South were returned to their "rightful" place of supremacy.
The white-supremacist campaign was carried out through voter intimidation, threats, rape, beatings and murder.
The most heinous of these acts of intimidation targeting the minority community was in the form of public lynching. Often performed only partially as a form of justice, lynching was a tactic to put the African-American community "in its place."
"In Klan ideology, the black man represents the demise of the white race," Harrison says. "This is pre-Hitler style, but it's the same kind of stuff. The existence of Negroes presents a constant threat to those who are white. That's what they say, except they don't use the word Negro to say it. There can't be a co-existence. There has to be an extermination."
It had been some time since Pensacola witnessed a lynching like Shaw's on that day of July 29, 1908. There is documentation of the lynching of a black man in McDavid in the late 1890s, but it is difficult to find evidence of other public lynchings until Shaw was hanged in Plaza Ferdinand.
Local history books and archives do not deal with racial violence head-on. The history of lynching in the South seems to have been forgotten or hidden.
Lynchings such as that of Leander Shaw are left out of history intentionally, according to Harrison, because "it directly undermines (the elites') world view. Their world view is that 'I am neutral. I'm the norm, and these people are just unfortunate. If they've got a problem, they need to get over it.'"
The PJC professor adds: "There's still this underlying idea that the racial minority's lives aren't worth the same (as whites). In fact, it's that same ideology that got them killed in the first place."
Latrisha Gill-Brown, PJC professor of African-American studies, first learned of the lynching of Shaw, while studying in Wisconsin.
"I thought that it was interesting to hear that story (of Shaw) as a graduate student (in Wisconsin), but yet when I came down here, lived in the community, worked in the community, was part of the community and taught the history here that there is no mention at all of this," Gill-Brown says. "People know (about lynching in Pensacola), but I don't know if people are comfortable confronting these demons."
The lives of people such as Andrew Jackson and Tristan de Luna—even Teddy Roosevelt's brief stop in Pensacola on his way to San Juan Hill—feature prominently in most versions of Pensacola history. Meanwhile, issues of racial tension and social strife, if mentioned, are downplayed.
The lynching of Shaw played a significant role in the history of Pensacola. First and foremost, the lynching marked—maybe more clearly even than the passing of Jim Crow law—a new era in racial relations in the city. If Pensacola's blacks didn't yet know, they learned: The days of Reconstruction were over. Some whites would go to almost any length to assert their power.
Shaw's lynching may have been the first in Plaza Ferdinand, but it wasn't the last. The lynching empowered white racists to commit more murders. Less than a year after Shaw was killed, another man was lynched in the plaza.
After the second plaza lynching, people in the white community began speaking out. Some condemned the lynching on grounds that it made the city look lawless; others opposed it almost purely for moral reasons.
The strongest condemnation printed in the Pensacola Journal came from Rabbi Jacob Schwarz of Temple Beth-el, who took great risk to publicly express his outrage considering that much of the racists' energy then and now focused on immigrant and Jewish communities.
However, as the film "Lillie & Leander" may or may not reveal, the condemnations only pushed the murders and lynching underground.
The lynching in Plaza Ferdinand, combined with Jim Crow and other economic factors, led to a dramatic exodus of blacks from the area. The exodus was most evident on the outskirts of the city, where many blacks felt less than safe, but it affected the entire city.
At the turn of the century, the majority of Pensacola residents were black. Within 20 years, 50 percent of the black population had left—most for so-called greener pastures up North and most for good.
TIME HEALS ALL WOUNDS?
As long as the history of racial violence in Pensacola is hidden, the wrongs done to blacks here remain unacknowledged. At the same time, little effort has been made to resolve the racial problems that persist, and the wounds inflicted by decades of racial violence fester.
"Until you make amends, you can't even begin the healing process," says LeRoy Boyd, a longtime civil rights activist and president of the social justice organization Movement for Change. "Here in Pensacola, we don't even want to look at the history of African-Americans, much less the racism that is so prevalent."
After such trauma, members of the community may need some kind of healing process to reconcile the ills of the past with the realities of the present.
"There has to be a sense of catharsis as a people to make amends for what has happened," Gill-Brown says. "But I think because people are so dysfunctional, we've got a long way to go."
For Harrison, the best hope for reconciliation lays in education "not just in the general sense, but almost a re-education about human beings (and what we have done to each other). If you teach history, it should be taught what actually happened."
Gill-Brown sees healing as part of the ongoing struggle for social equality.
"If we don't address social ills, such as racism, discrimination, homophobia—all the issues of our society—then I think we are just as complicit in being a part of the problem as that of the original perpetrators," she says. "We have to address this, we have to go there, and we have to be brave. It's not going to be easy, but we have to do it anyway."
University of West Florida Archaeology Institute Chairwoman Judy Bense, who appears in "Lillie & Leander" and participated in the investigation, also says the past should be confronted no matter how terrible.
"Your history is your history and you have the responsibility to deal with it," she says. "All history is important to know. We shouldn't run from our history."
Still, not everyone wants to "go there." Several of the people involved with the documentary about the lynching of Shaw are rumored to have received death threats.
In fact, when Hurwitz attended the Pensacola International Film Festival in November to show a trailer of her documentary at the African-American Heritage Society, the event was by invitation only to 50 people. She admitted being fearful of repercussions.
The "Lillie & Leander" trailer was taken down off the film's website then and only restored within the past two weeks.
Even in the documentary, family members warn Hurwitz that she has a "death wish," and that her research is a "definite disregard for the family."
Says Hurwitz in the film: "We're not doing yellow journalism research. I don't want to get people angry, hurt people, cause harm. But I can't control that."
Lauren Anzaldo contributed to this report.
"Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence"
The documentary is premiering Friday, April 27 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It's screening four times: 5 p.m. Friday, April 27 at the AMC Village VII; 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, May 2 at the AMC 34th Street; 7:15 p.m. Thursday, May 3 at the AMC 34th Street; and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 6 at the AMC 34th Street.
To view the trailer and learn more about the film go to: sandyhollowproductions.com