FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Palm Beach County has decided it’s time to accept its complicity in the murders of Henry Simmons and Samuel Nelson.
The two Black men were killed in the 1920s, at a time when whites felt free to pursue vigilante justice in the names of fellow whites they believed had been injured or offended. Both men suffered at the hands of white mobs who riddled their bodies with bullets. Their stories have been mostly left to their families and history buffs.
But the stories will get widespread public attention over the next year as Palm Beach County plans a series of events to remember the men and the era when they were killed, a time of racial terror post-Civil War and through the first half of the 20th century.
These discussions can sometimes become uncomfortable as American communities come to terms with a history of racial violence. Some states have banned the teaching of “critical race theory,” a college-level approach that examines how discrimination is embedded in laws and social policies. Other racial reckonings have met more receptive audiences: A crowd cheered as a giant statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed from its pedestal in Richmond, Virginia, on Sept. 8.
Palm Beach County also plans public events, seeking to form a consensus about confronting past and current injustices. In one of the more vivid acknowledgments, the county will transport a six-foot steel monument bearing the lynched men’s names from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial, which opened in 2018, houses a powerful display with more than 800 rust-colored steel monuments hanging from above, one for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. The names of each lynched person in each county, totaling more than 4,400, is engraved on the markers, which appear to float above as visitors walk underneath.
In a grassy area next to the memorial, replicas of the markers wait for counties to claim them and bring them home as acknowledgement of a sad history. So far, none has left the site, but hundreds of counties have begun working with the museum as they tackle their histories of racially motivated violence, said Kiara Boone, deputy director of community education at the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit that runs the memorial.
“We think of the monument as a recognition of the work that will continue to happen,” she said. “We want people to understand the importance of dialogue. The monument is a reminder.”
The initiative has documented 315 lynchings in Florida between 1877 and 1950.
Thirty-three were in Orange County, the highest number in the state. The initiative found three in Miami-Dade and one in Broward.
The Broward lynching took place in Fort Lauderdale, where the city has begun the process of acknowledging the 1935 lynching of Rubin Stacy, a Black man accused of attacking a white woman with a pen knife; others said he asked for a glass of water.
Stacy was hung from a pine tree close to the woman’s Davie Boulevard home. Hanged while handcuffed, he was shot 17 times; his body was left on the tree for eight hours.
Photos of the lynching, with children smiling, appeared in newspapers across the nation. City leaders, who have been discussing their plans with the Equal Justice project, plan to honor Stacy by giving a two-mile stretch of Davie Boulevard a second name, Rubin Stacy Memorial Boulevard. Signs are expected to be posted in the coming months.
In Palm Beach County, a committee called the Community Remembrance Project has begun plans to memorialize the county’s two lynchings through essay contests, historic markers, book readings and lectures. The County Commission gave its go-ahead for the project in 2019 and got an update on the project in August.
Bryan Boysaw, a West Palm Beach attorney and committee member, said the project is working to show the Montgomery museum that there is community-wide support before the steel marker is brought home.
“I’m amazed every day at how there is so much more I need to learn about this history,” Boysaw said. Among the initiative’s requirements: a soil collection project, in which the community gathers dirt from the places where the lynchings happened and puts it on display as part of a tribute to the lynched person’s memory.
Soil collection can be a challenge when organizers don’t know the exact location of a lynching. In the case of Samuel Nelson, newspapers reported his body was found on Sept. 26, 1926, riddled with bullets on the bank of a canal near Military Trail west of Delray Beach. The door to his jail cell had been battered open after he was charged with attempted assault of a white woman in Miami. A coroner’s jury declared the cause “death at the hands of parties unknown,” according to an Associated Press story at the time.
The location of the murder of Henry Simmons on the island of Palm Beach is more precise. His body was found hanging from a tree, punctured with bullet holes, on June 7, 1923, near the intersection of Barton Avenue and South County Road. He had been dragged from his home in West Palm Beach by a mob of white men after a white police officer, who later died, said he was attacked and shot by three Black men.
A grand jury interviewed 39 witnesses but was unable to reach a conclusion about who killed the police officer or Simmons.
Who was culpable may never be known. But Boysaw said the community discussions and markers will bring a small bit of closure to a dreadful period in history.
“We have a unique opportunity to bring about some change,” he said. “We cannot move beyond the issue until we come to terms with it.”