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The Florida Roundup
The Florida Roundup is a live, weekly call-in show with a distinct focus on the issues affecting Floridians. Each Friday at noon, listeners can engage in the conversation with journalists, newsmakers and other Floridians about change, policy and the future of our lives in the sunshine state.Join our host, WLRN’s Tom Hudson, broadcasting from Miami.

How historical markers can remember, and manipulate, the past

A dark blue sign with gold text that reads: "Lynching In America. Thousands of African Americans were victims of lynching and racial violence in the United States between the Civil War and World War II. The lynching of African Americans during this era was a form of racial terrorism used to intimidate Black people and enforce racial hierarchy and segregation. Lynching was most prevalent in the South. After the Civil War, violent resistance to equal rights for African Americans and ideology of white supremacy led to fatal violence against Black women, men, and children accused of violating social customs, engaging in interracial relationships, or crimes. Lynching became the most public and notorious form of racial terror and subordination directed at Black people and was frequently tolerated or even supported by law enforcement and elected officials. Though terror lynching generally took place in communities with functioning criminal justice systems, lynching victims were denied due process, often based on mere accusations, and pulled from jails or delivered to mobs by law enforcement officers legally required to protect them. Millions of African Americans fled the South to escape the climate of terror and trauma created by these acts of violence. Of the more than 316 documents racial terror lynchings that took place in Florida between 1877 and 1950, at least three took place in Pinellas County including John Thomas on December 25, 1905, and Parker Watson on May 9, 1926."
Gracyn Doctor
A historical marker in St. Petersburg talks about lynching in America. The other side of the marker describes the lynching of John Evans in 1914.

There are more than 180,000 historical markers in the U.S., including some in Florida remembering the victims of racial violence.

The U.S. is dotted with historical markers. You can usually spot one as a plaque on the ground or a metal sign.

“There's more than 180,000 markers in this country so far. We keep putting more and more up,” Laura Sullivan, investigative reporter for NPR, said Friday on The Florida Roundup. Sullivan has investigated historical markers as part of the NPR series Off The Mark.

“… we found more than 35,000 different groups and individuals and societies and towns and businesses have put up historical markers. They generally cost about $3,000 to make, give or take, and you just need someone to give you a little spot of land,” Sullivan said.

There are plenty of historical markers in the Sunshine State as well.

A dark blue sign with gold text that reads: "The Lynching of John Evans. Near this site on November 12, 1914, a white mob lynched a Black man named John Evans. During this era, Black people were burdened by a presumption of guilt that made them vulnerable to mob violence and lynching. Mr. Evans arrived in St. Petersburg from Dunnellon, Florida and worked for a white man, Edward Sherman. When Mr. Sherman was later found dead and his wife was reportedly assaulted, suspicion was directed at Mr. Evans. Without formal charges, trial, or conviction of Mr. Evans, a white mob kidnapped him from a rooming house and tortured him in a wooded area before throwing him in the St. Petersburg Jail. The mob later abducted Mr. Evans from the jail and hanged him from a light pole located at the border between the city’s segregated Black and white communities. This public spectacle lynching was attended by an estimated 1500 white men, women, and children. As Mr. Evans struggled to hold himself aloft, a white woman shot him from her car, inciting the crowd to fire upon him for more than ten minutes. White mobs then terrorized the Black community for days in search of an alleged accomplice, Ebenezer Tobin. At least 170 Black residents fled their homes for safety. Mr. Tobin was later found and tried by an all-white jury, becoming the first person legally hanged in Pinellas County in October 1915. No one was held accountable for Mr. Evans’ lynching due to the impunity granted by racial hierarchy in St. Petersburg."
Gracyn Doctor
A historical marker in St. Petersburg describing the lynching of John Evans in 1914. The other side of the marker talks about lynching in America.

In St. Petersburg, a marker sits near the site where a Black man named John Evans was lynched by a white mob in 1914. It’s on the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Second Avenue South, behind Tropicana Field and next to a U-Haul building.

“The marker is there to remind people of racial terror and factual racial terror occurrences. And that happened in the city of St. Petersburg,” said Danny White, president of Pinellas Remembers, a coalition documenting the legacy of racial terror in Pinellas County.

In February, Miami-Dade County unveiled the Arthur Lee McDuffie State Historical Marker in Miami, on the corner of 38th Street and North Miami Avenue. McDuffie, a Black father and former U.S. Marine, was beaten to death by four white police officers 45 years ago. The officers were acquitted by an all-white jury, leading to protests and riots in the county.

“States, cities, counties, even the United States don't like to mark bloody places. They don't like to memorialize places where dirty things happened in their provinces. So they don't just put up a marker like that, and this is a pretty tragic affair,” said Dr. Marvin Dunn, a historian and professor emeritus at Florida International University. Dunn wrote the text on the marker honoring McDuffie.

“When I wrote the narrative for that marker, I sent it to the state explaining what had happened, and I indicated that Mr. McDuffie had been beaten to death by half a dozen white Metro-Dade police officers. And the state rejected that wording and sent it back without the word white in it. Just beaten to death by half a dozen police officers. And I told them, if they don't put the word white back on the marker, they should take my name off of it,” Dunn said. The finished marker does say McDuffie was killed by white officers.

Sullivan said historical markers have a darker side, as they’ve been used to manipulate how American history is told.

“We found significant distortions in the South when it comes to telling the history of the Civil War, we found more than 500 markers that glorify the Confederacy, or vilify the Union, or just falsify the reasons for the war,” Sullivan said.

A concrete historical marker with a palm tree next to it
Julia Cooer
This historical marker commemorates the 1935 hurricane in Islamorada in Monroe County.

For example, when it comes to markers mentioning plantations, Sullivan said almost 70% of them don’t talk about slavery.

“Even in Florida, we found nine of these markers that talked about plantations that don't mention slavery. We found more than 500 markers that talk about notable men and their notable houses without mentioning the forced, free labor that made that kind of work possible. There's eight of those,” Sullivan explained.

Sullivan noted groups in the 20th century also erected markers to oppose civil rights gains in the U.S.

“One of the groups that we saw that was doing this was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which put up more than 600 markers glorifying the Confederacy, and really making slavery sound like a pleasant experience,” Sullivan said.

But Sullivan said it’s not easy for states to change or get rid of historical markers. They also aren’t considered in discussions about U.S. history.

“They've really flown under the radar of all of this conversation that's gone on over the past few years about how do we want to tell the country's history and the past? And how do we explain slavery? And a lot of them that we saw really do this same thing where slavery wasn't that bad.”

As WUSF’s digital news producer, I strive to serve others by sharing stories on our online platforms.