From Issue 13: The Hammocks: A Hidden Past in Central Florida

Miriam Mosher

The persimmon is a strange little fruit—eat it too soon and you will involuntarily pucker, the tissues of your mouth and tongue literally contracting from the astringency; wait too long and the flesh becomes soft and bruised, clearly past it’s prime. Florida is a cornucopia of weird produce: lemons nearly as big as a baby’s head, and supersized avocados too, wild grapes with thick leathery skins and every citrus combination imaginable, but the original strange fruit is a thing most Floridians know nothing about, or feign ignorance if they do. While the poplar tree isn’t particularly common on the peninsula, bodies once hung from the large live oaks that are so ubiquitous in the state’s northern region.

I grew up in North Central Florida. In the rural areas that dominate the region, most white people proudly self-identify as rednecks and the N-word makes appearances in more than just rap songs, yet I came into adulthood thinking of Florida as The Pseudo South. It has the regional tropes, from boiled peanuts to cracker houses, but was somewhat removed from that messy slavery business. Most of my fellow Alachua County residents operate under that same delusion. Gainesville, after all, is a college town: definitively liberal, a bastion of intellectualism, a celebrated progenitor of both second wave Feminism and music from early rock to post punk. In this town, Southernness is embraced as a kitschy thing, celebrating the signifiers yet none of the history they represent.

For some combination of reasons including the framing of Florida as a vacation destination— more an extension of America than American in and of itself — The Sunshine State uneasily fits into the designation “Southern.” Late to join the nation, Florida didn’t follow the same plantation narrative as the Deep South.  The transfer of Florida from Spain to The Untied States in 1821 and the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865 only allowed sixty-odd years for the existence of that peculiar institution. It’s easy to gloss over slavery in Florida: starting with tobacco in the Chesapeake and ending with King Cotton in the Deep South, its expansion into Florida becomes a footnote in the plantation narrative. Judging by what we learned in school, Florida history was all about the Spanish and the Indians.

In conversation, I heard about other histories. We had a family friend named Arthur. In his youth he had been a black cowboy working for what had once been a prominent planter family. They lived in South Carolina while he managed their large farm in Florida. He bred and sold steer and dogs, making the family significant amounts of money. This was before the land became a luxury housing development and town center named, of course, Haile Plantation. Before he passed, Arthur told my mom stories about dinners with the Hailes— eating from their other china even though their dogs, animals that he had bred, would lick the scraps from the family’s personal plates. His stories illuminated a not so distant Florida that felt miles away. He told us about a large tree in the small neighboring town of Newberry. His mamma pointed it out to him, he said, after he had shown interest in a white girl.

***

Newberry is still a small town. Located just beyond Gainesville’s westward sprawl, it is decidedly rural. Past Dudley Farm Historic State Park, a living exhibit of Florida’s cracker era, a few miles of open pasture, and Hitchcock’s grocery, Florida State Road 26 narrows into a two-lane main street. A small, unassuming sign announces your arrival, Newberry: Enhancing the Future, While Embracing the Past. The main drag is a mile or so long. It’s a mix of old buildings, some still functioning in their original Mom and Pop capacity, feed and seed stores, pawn shops, and, of course, a white clapboard church.

On a particularly brutal August morning, I drove out to Newberry in my sister’s pickup. I was looking for the spot referred to as The Hammocks, a collection of live oaks just off the main street. The southern live oak is a magnificent tree; their large boughs arch gracefully away from their sturdy trunk forming a canopy. It is achingly beautiful, the Spanish moss hanging like lace curtains in the wind. That particular day was the hundred-year anniversary of The Newberry Six, a mass lynching that took place at that particular copse. Four Black men and two women, one with child, were killed by a mob almost as large as the town’s white population.

When the first planters came to Florida from South Carolina—namely the Hailes, the Chestnuts and the Dudleys—they created the plantation belt, a series of large farms spanning the North central region of the peninsula. The weather was harsh and relatively inhospitable to the major cash crops, so the plantations looked more like homesteads than the lavish plantations of Virginia or the Deep South.  There simply wasn’t the same volume of wealth to be generated here. Florida, for the most part, was undeveloped, simply the nation’s appendage. It was the growth of business outside of farming that eventually spurred development. When mining came to Newberry, among other small towns, so too did an influx of single male laborers. The same trains that would later bring vacationers brought a steady stream of poor white men in search of work. The area developed the rough and tumble restlessness of a boomtown. Unskilled laborers far outnumbered jobs; a problem even today as mining has become increasingly mechanized and a cement plant, which promised to bring jobs, didn’t hire locally. The noxious combination of poverty, perceived entitlement and racism created a nexus of vigilantism.

While lavish plantations and the antebellum system within which they functioned have come to signify Southernness, it was Florida, with it’s more modest homesteads and large poor white population, where a black man was most likely to be lynched, not by sheer number, although that is close as well, but far and away proportionally. There are 20 documented lynchings in Alachua County alone, and many undocumented incidents as well. According to Patricia Hilliard Nunn, a Professor of African American Studies at The University of Florida, to claim that there were 20 lynchings is “dishonest and disinterested,”— traditional records simply don’t capture the whole story. In addition to the undocumented lynchings, there were the sham trials that ended in a hanging. After about 1920, the state began to condemn lynchings, it was tarnishing their efforts to brand Florida as a vacation destination. Instead, they pushed for speedy trials that all ended the same way— with a body. It was shocking to learn that I had grown up in the lynching capitol of the Southern United States. Florida isn’t the Pseudo-South; it is the South.

***

Slowing down to 30 mph, I realized that I didn’t actually know where the trees were. They remain unmarked, an issue that has gained a modicum of attention on the centennial of Newberry’s most infamous lynching. I assumed it would be obvious, the large trees in the center of town, but before I knew it I had already driven the entire downtown drag, and found myself surrounded, again, by a tunnel of green. On my second lap, I pulled into Cilantro Tacos. The dirt lot had its fair share of pick-ups, but it was less crowded than the BBQ joint. It seemed like a simple enough question until I was faced with asking it: “I was just wondering if you know where The Hammocks are,” I asked shiftily. It didn’t seem appropriate to ask for the lynching tree, so I resorted to that Southern art of obscuring the grotesque with the idyllic, of referring to history as something charming. The Hammocks, what a delightful name. What a bastion of natural beauty, a reminder of a time past when a town center actually meant something. And gathering place it was—thousands from across the state had made the pilgrimage to see the bodies hanging, limp like laundry on a clothesline. Postcards document it. This was before Florida marketed itself as The Sunshine State, sending greeting cards of lynchings instead of sunny images of oranges with their liquid gold juice.

The woman at the counter wasn’t originally from there, a surprise in such a small town. Most transplants live in the high-end subdivisions between Gainesville and Newberry. She directed me to a large man eating lunch with his wife and two children.  “He grew up here,” she told me helpfully before getting his attention. What had she so kindly gotten me into?

There is a discomfort in asking. It feels accusatory, like I am implicitly saying, hey, I want to know where your relatives and all their friends killed those black people. I continued dancing around the topic with euphemistic turns of phrase. He only knew The Hammock apartments, or so he said. I tried again, “lots of town events happened there… like some lynchings” I meekly squeaked before hastily making my exit.  In my rearview mirror I could see a building with three signs: Amo, Wholesale Jewelry, and Firearms.

Why hadn’t I asked about Boisy Long, the black man accused of running a hog-stealing ring 100 years ago, or Jim Dennis, a victim of the gun-slinging vigilantes? Why didn’t I come out and say the names of the five who graced those grotesque postcards: Mary and Bert Dennis, Andrew McHenry, Reverand Josh J. Baskins and Stella Young? How could any Newberry native not know the events of August 1916?

The days leading up to the arrest and execution of Boisy Long were some of the darkest in Newberry’s history. They leave a long shadow. On Friday 18th, 1916, George Wynne, the Deputy Sheriff, and Dr. L G. Harris, the local pharmacist, paid a 2 a.m. call to the Dennis home to investigate a supposed hog stealing ring. An altercation of some sort occurred, resulting in Boisy Long allegedly shooting the two men. Deputy Wynne was rushed to the hospital in Jacksonville, but the wound proved fatal. Long was on the run, a precarious situation normally, but a death sentence as a black man in rural Florida.

Boisy Long had been orphaned as a child and was raised by the Black community, the Dennis family in particular. Later that day, three members of the Dennis Family and two close family friends were arrested and accused of aiding and abetting Long. Jim Dennis was shot resisting arrest. The manhunt for Boisy Long became a town event.  While Boisy did eventually receive a trial— a biased trial, but a trial nonetheless— a mob sprang the Dennis siblings, Andrew McHenry, Reverand Baskins and Stella Young from the jail and marched them to the Hammocks. From that day on, the Hammocks became known as Lynchers Hammock or Hangman’s Island. Others were killed in the chaos that ensued around those stately trees.

How could he not know? But then again, can’t a man just eat some tacos with his family?

On my way back to Gainesville I noticed a round white building across from Hitchocks. It backed up to a forested area. Hadn’t Arthur said the tree was by the round building?  There was a large clump of trees by the road. Maybe this is the spot? I had read that the old cemetery is behind Hitchcocks so this would have been considered part of town, the edge for sure, but still on the main artery.  There was a little dirt road heading diagonally behind the round building towards what I thought may be the site. Making a last ditch effort, I quickly turned the wheel. The road turned out not to be a road but a driveway leading to a permanent trailer. Three pit bulls were barking, effectively warding me off. If those were the trees, I sure hadn’t communed with them in any meaningful way.

Quercus Virginia, the Southern Live Oak, can endure for centuries. They are stately, an over-sized parasol providing shelter from the blazing heat. A veritable habitat, the trees are a self-contained ecosystem from their roots to their branches. These trees, if they were the trees, had borne witness to so much: to young lovers, basking in their shade, to kids playing and friends meeting; to the five that hung on that fateful day; to those who were killed in the mob violence; to the two young girls, juice dripping down their chins, who were hung when a farmer accused them of eating his watermelon. So many moments had played out in the dappled shadows of those long, arching boughs.

 

 

Born and raised in Northern Florida, Miriam Mosher has penned various essays relating to the South. She authored a chapter, “‘Through the eyes of others:” on the aesthetics of double consciousness which will appear in an upcoming publication from The Smithsonian. Miriam now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she works as a freelance writer and contributor to Bushwick Daily.