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Past pain still present

A study of recorded lynchings in Hernando County reveals it had the highest per capita rate of violence against blacks in the United States.

By DAN DeWITT, Times Staff Writer
Published July 5, 2005

BROOKSVILLE - In 1929, a 19-year-old black man named Carl Lang was arrested for shooting into a deputy sheriff's apartment above a country store in Hernando County.

Lang was briefly jailed and then, as he walked home, grabbed by a mob of white men on horseback.

In what is now the Withlacoochee State Forest, "they put (Lang) on a horse and tied a noose around him and popped his neck and then put his body down on the ground," said Mable Sims, 58, whose great-aunt was Lang's mother.

"They put lighter stumps on him and built a fire. ... They danced and drank moonshine while this black man lay down and his bones turned to ashes."

Lang's death was one of as many as seven lynchings in Hernando from 1900 to 1931 - more per capita than any county in the nation, according to the most reliable statistics available. Especially shocking, historians say, is that racial terrorism here peaked in the late 1920s, when lynchings were in sharp decline across the country.

"Remember, this was a tiny county at the time," said Gary Mormino, a professor of Florida studies at the University of South Florida. "(The rate in) Hernando County is just astronomically high."

In recent weeks, the Senate has apologized for failing to pass antilynching legislation; a Mississippi judge sentenced Edgar Ray Killen to 60 years in prison for the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers; and Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist reopened the investigation of the 1951 killing of Brevard County civil rights leader Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette.

One elected official believes it's also time for Hernando to own up to its history of racial brutality, which the St. Petersburg Times began investigating after the Senate apology.

"When national leaders are apologizing, and then you find out that the county you live in is the leader in this atrocity, it would be wrong for us to do nothing and to say nothing," said county Commissioner Diane Rowden, who is preparing a resolution condemning the violence.

But Charlie Batten, 90 years old and white, waved his hand dismissively when he was asked about the lynchings of the 1920s.

"You mean the hanging times," he said. "There ought to be more of it going on now, Ku Klux Klan, too. A lot of those people need a good whipping."

Reign of mob violence

Hernando's history of endorsing racial violence dates back to at least 1856, when residents named their town after Preston Brooks, a proslavery South Carolina member of Congress best known for severely beating an abolitionist senator.

In the 1870s, white residents killed several African-Americans in an armed feud sparked by an interracial marriage. In 1900, a mob lynched two black men in Hernando, according to NAACP records.

Shocking as the killings seem now, they fit with the broader history of racial violence in the United States, said Ray Arsenault, another USF professor of Florida studies.

The number of annual lynchings in the United States crested in 1892 at 230, most of them in the South. Mob violence then began to decline because of pressure from Northern politicians and newspapers and, Arsenault said, because increasingly oppressive Jim Crow laws ensured severe punishment for African-Americans.

"Basically, you had legal lynchings," he said.

By 1924, the number of lynchings in the country had dropped to 16, according to a Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) survey of racial violence.

Charles S. Johnson used information from that study in his 1941 book, Statistical Atlas of Southern Counties , in which he calculated the lynching rate in Hernando - where the population in 1930 was less than 5,000 - at 101.05 per 100,000 residents between 1900 and 1931.

That was nearly 10 times the overall rate in Florida, which was second only to Mississippi. It was more than twice the rate in Levy County (site of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre) and many times higher than either Hillsborough or Pinellas, where the rate was 3.22.

Because of the difficulty of documenting lynchings, other equally small, isolated counties may well have seen as much mob violence as Hernando, said Mormino, author of Florida, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida.

"Lynchings are way undercounted," Mormino said.

But that is also true in Hernando. Johnson estimated the county had a total of five lynchings from 1900 to 1931, while interviews and other documents reveal the tally is more like seven, including four or five in the 1920s alone, as well as a fatal shooting of an African-American laborer and the vicious beating of a black farmer.

None of the killers were prosecuted. All of the victims were black teenagers or young men who had violated a symbol of white power or were alleged to have done so.

"(These allegations) should be viewed with an extremely jaundiced eye," Mormino said. "Rape, for example, could mean that someone had winked at a white woman."

1924: The worst of the violence began in 1924, shortly after a prosperous black farmer named Will Timmons bought a new car, said Retha Timmons, his now-deceased niece, in a 1999 interview with the St. Petersburg Times .

As she returned with him from the fields, he was confronted by a group of white men - unmasked because they apparently did not fear arrest - and then beaten "half to death," she said.

L.C. Mobley, 72, a lifelong Hernando resident, said he was told as a boy that the mob "beat (Timmons) between the legs until they tore his testicles up."

"They did castrate him ... because he bought a brand-new Ford."

1926: The April 30, 1926, Brooksville Herald carried front-page stories about the Hernando High School debate team and the impressions of the president of Hernando State Bank upon his return from a trip to North Carolina.

A story about a lynching - "Mob takes Negro on way to trial" - occupied one column on the bottom half of page 7.

Charles Davis, accused of killing a Pasco County deputy in eastern Hernando County, had been jailed in Ocala, the paper said. As Hernando Sheriff W.D. Cobb and a deputy led Davis south for his trial, he was taken away by an armed mob near Nobleton.

"I believe Davis was taken and thrown into the Withlacoochee River," Cobb told Brooksville's Southern Argus newspaper, which carried a brief story about the killing. "Maybe in a day or two the body will come to the surface."

The Argus devoted even less space to the December 1926 lynching of a black man who had been arrested on suspicion of stealing two pistols:

"Hopes of finding "Smokey' White alive were abandoned Saturday after a posse had made a forty-eight hour search for him following his abduction by a band of masked whites."

1928: The Brooksville Journal reported the death of a black laborer, Abner Wright, who it said started a fight in a rock mine's laborer's quarters and then threatened to stab a white supervisor, G.L. Ghiotto, who had tried to break it up.

"Mr. Ghiotto was compelled to draw his revolver and shoot the Negro in order that his own life might not be in jeopardy," the paper reported.

In May 1928, the Herald reported J.H. James, 17, was "thought to have been the victim of another murder." The paper did not say the black teen had been killed by a mob, but it reported two common signs of lynching: a pile of pine knots suggesting a failed effort to burn James' body, and a seeming lack of interest in prosecution.

"No clues as to the murder were located," the article concluded, "as no tracks could be found near the body."

1929: Along with cursory reports of Lang's killing, papers in February 1929 carried much longer accounts of the lynching of Buster Allen, 18, accused of raping a white girl in the town of Croom, now part of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Because of the threat of mob violence, a Citrus County newspaper reported, Allen was taken to a jail in Hillsborough County. Six days later, a group of Hernando residents posing as deputies produced a statement from Sheriff Cobb authorizing Allen's release.

The men then drove Allen back to Hernando, shot him numerous times, and hung his body near Croom, on what was then a main highway to Tampa. Cobb told the paper the authorization had been forged, but the Hillsborough jailer said that it was typed on Sheriff's Office stationery and that, before releasing Allen, the jailer had carefully examined Cobb's signature to make sure it was authentic.

Nevertheless, the paper reported, a grand jury "found no evidence for an indictment and adjourned on Thursday."

The paper made no mention of the lynching's aftermath: Allen's body remained hanging by the highway for several days while Brooksville residents streamed by to view it, Roy Snow, a now-deceased former county commissioner, said in a 1999 interview.

"I can show you the tree where he was lynched," Snow said.

Racism in the community

Historians offer several possible explanations for the vicious racism in Hernando.

It was an isolated county populated mostly by poor farmers who tended to view African-Americans as an economic threat; it was ruled by a sheriff who seemed to foster the Wild West atmosphere that was partly to blame for the state's generally high rate of racial violence.

"Brooksville was so bad, you wouldn't hardly go uptown on a Friday or Saturday night without a pistol," said Neil Law Jr., 87.

"(Cobb) was just one of those old frontier guys who would shoot you first and then talk to you later," said Chan Springstead, 80, whose grandfather, Warren Springstead, a dairy farmer, was one of two prominent white residents shot and killed by Cobb.

But whatever the original source, Arsenault said, intimidation and oppression often lead to more of the same; racism becomes part of a community's character.

"It can take on a life of its own," he said. "It just becomes the way people do things."

In Brooksville, in the 1920s, Ku Klux Klan parades were cause for civic celebration, and one of them, in 1923, drew more than 1,000 spectators, the Argus reported.

"This was the largest crowd yet witnessed in the city."

In 1928, th e Journal added disapproving commentary to a front-page news story from Okeechobee about a rally for black supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith:

"No good can come from inciting the Negroes to enter politics. ... Negroes have never voted in this county and white people and Negroes have always gotten along very well."

In 1948, Brooksville passed a zoning law mandating racially segregated neighborhoods, and 10 years later built a sewage treatment plant next to the county's only school for black children.

In the 1980s, when the federal government provided a grant to improve living conditions in predominantly black southern Brooksville, the money was distributed among white-owned companies, but almost none of the planned work was completed.

A statue of a Confederate soldier still stands on the lawn of the county courthouse in Brooksville.

And, in an interview two weeks ago, Law proudly told how his father, who replaced Cobb in 1932, put an end to the lynchings. But Law also said he hated to see them brought to light: "It just brings the coloreds up more than they need to be."

The hurting doesn't stop

Mable Sims grew up in the social wreckage on the other side of this divide.

The terror of lynching drove away black residents, especially men, in great numbers, Sims said, a statement supported by census figures in Johnson's book: While the county's total population climbed nearly 9 percent during the 1920s, the number of African-Americans fell 16.5 percent.

Retha Timmons said that her uncle, who was bedridden for more than a year with his injuries, never reclaimed his farm and that she stayed away for 70 years.

Lang's lynching "broke up our family. ... That's why I was raised by women," said Sims, who said Lang was falsely accused of firing the shots, which did not harm anyone, into the store.

"When my great-aunt talked about it, she would sit on the porch and cry. When you can see the pain and heartache, how he didn't even have a chance to go to the court to explain - it hurts," said Sims, who cried.

"It still hurts."

--Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan DeWitt can be reached at 352 754-6116 or

[Last modified July 5, 2005, 01:34:07]

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