OSTEEN — The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees, in short, the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.
Nearly 105 years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, a group of approximately 80 white men brutally trampled the rights of Charles Harris and Anthony Johnson.
On Sept. 17, 1896, Harris and Johnson were hanged from a tree, somewhere between Osteen and Oak Hill, their Black bodies riddled with bullets, according to research by Volusia Remembers and the Equal Justice Initiative.
Harris and Johnson were accused of assaulting an employer’s young daughter, according to the research. They would never see the inside of a courtroom — the men were snatched from police custody and murdered.
‘Part of the healing’:Nonprofit Volusia Remembers works to restore humanity to local Black lynching victims
Their remains were left on display at least until the following day, historical research indicates, a gruesome reminder to the Black community of what could happen were they accused of a crime.
“As we stand today, we stand in honor of those that have been victimized, have been taken unjustly, without any semblance of fairness through the court system,” Reggie Williams, a reverend and member of the nonprofit Volusia Remembers Coalition, said Saturday morning at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. “At the same time, we stand tall to restore, to heal, to reconcile the deep-rooted wounds of racism, division and oppression that continues to affect our society today.”
Williams was one of about a dozen people who participated in the ceremony memorializing Harris and Johnson 126 years after the men were murdered.
Like the ceremonies held last year in other parts of Volusia County for Lee Snell and Lee Bailey, Saturday’s gathering was part of the local nonprofit’s mission: “Remember, acknowledge and reflect upon our history of racial terror by partnering with the Equal Justice Initiative to install monuments to victims of lynching in Volusia County, Florida.”
And just like during the previous ceremonies, they displayed the names of victims of modern-day lynchings, hate crimes or excessive force.
‘We must teach our history’
Saturday’s ceremony began with a meditation by Macedonia Missionary Baptist’s pastor, Rev. James A. Jenkins Sr., which was followed by a video of the Bethune-Cookman University Concert Chorale singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” interspersed with photos of notable Black figures, past and present.
On a table at the head of the pews were four large clear jars filled with soil; on each jar the name of a victim identified in a local lynching, where they died and when. The soil was collected from the approximate locations of the murders of Snell, Bailey, Harris and Johnson.
“Thank you all for being here for this solemn ceremony mourning the deaths and lifting up the humanity of these two Black men,” said Grady Ballenger, co-chair of Volusia Remembers and an English professor at Stetson University.
He encouraged the couple-dozen attendees to consider, after the ceremony, how they’ve come to hold certain beliefs about race.
“This is painful work for all of us, and we acknowledge that it is especially hard for those who are white, whose ancestors were white in 1896,” Ballenger said. “But it’s even harder for those whose ancestors were Black.”
Daisy Grimes, the local nonprofit’s ceremony and soil collection chair, presided over Saturday’s ceremony.
Grimes, whose husband Hubert Grimes was Volusia County’s first Black judge, asked that people not confuse critical race theory and history.
“We must teach our history, the good, the bad and the ugly, so we do not repeat it,” Grimes said.
Before introducing Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano, she explained the nonprofit likes to have at least one judge involved in these ceremonies, because the judicial system can’t be taken for granted.
Zambrano said people look to judges for justice, equality and due process, matters of which Harris and Johnson saw none.
Rajni Shankar-Brown, a Stetson University professor and Jessie Ball duPont endowed chair of Social Justice Education, read a poem she wrote to honor Harris and Johnson.
She also thanked attendees for coming and reminded them that the work continues.
“Economic and racial injustice continues to take lives, disproportionately Black and brown bodies and heartbeats each day, and it affects all of us and calls on all of us to stand in unity with love and rise for justice,” Shankar-Brown said.
Evan Keller, the communications chair for Volusia Remembers, shared some of his personal history and what led him to realize how ingrained white supremacy is in the country’s fabric and what happens when a white person starts to pull at its threads.
“Most of us whites don’t realize we’re flowing in the current of white supremacy, but when we do a U-turn and speak up for Black lives, we are quickly struck by stiff resistance from fellow whites,” Keller said. “Simply doing nothing actually reinforces a system of discrimination; as our culture’s conveyor belt carries us along in the same direction as active racists; to disrupt it, we must actively move in the opposite direction.”
Barb Girtman, vice chair of the Volusia County Council and the District 1 representative, presented Volusia Remembers with a proclamation from the council in recognition of the group’s work.
Hubert Grimes, with Zambrano and Circuit Judge Joan Anthony standing by him, led the libation ceremony, a ritual pouring of liquid in honor of the deceased.
“We are people charged and granted an opportunity by God to be here in this country that’s often referred to as the greatest country in the world,” Grimes said. “Yet there are those who don’t quite get it, that being the beneficiary of those privileges carries with it a responsibility to love one another, the greatest commandment that Jesus taught, to be able to respect one another and even when we disagree to do so without being disagreeable.”
While extensive research by the nonprofit, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative and its larger effort to memorialize documented lynching victims nationwide, revealed what happened to Harris and Johnson after they were accused of assaulting their employer’s daughter, little else is known about them.
“The people who perpetrated this crime were allowed to go home with their families, work and pursue their lives without any recourse at all,” Felicia Benzo, the education chair of Volusia Remembers, said.
Florida’s population grew rapidly after the Reconstruction Era, and people who were essentially lured to the area by the advertisement of job opportunities would often find themselves, more or less, enslaved through debt peonage, legal enslavement without recourse, Richard Buckelew, an associate professor of history and social science education at Bethune-Cookman University, said.
Some people, before even having a chance to look for a job, were accused of vagrancy, arrested and put in a chain gang, Buckelew said.
In the coming months, the soil collections will be displayed at different museums throughout Volusia County. Another set will be sent to Montgomery, Alabama, for display inside the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
The Volusia Remembers Coalition also plans to hold public discussions for people to talk about the portions of history many find hard to face.
Sharon Stafford, who co-chairs the nonprofit, said the group also plans to install historical markers at the locations where the lynchings occurred.
She said the victims who have so far been recognized by the organization with soil ceremonies are just the well-documented cases, and as further records are found, the group may recognize additional lynching victims in the future.