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Tampa Bay community honors lynching victims, educates others about their stories

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Posted at 10:44 PM, Nov 16, 2021

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — On Tuesday evening, people in Tampa came together to sit with an uncomfortable truth.

"Robert Johnson, a Black man around 40, was shot to death after being illegally seized from the Tampa city jail by a white man named Tom Graves," said Reverend Dr. Glenn B. Dames Jr.

Reports show Johnson was arrested and wrongly accused of attacking a white woman in Ybor City. But instead of letting him go home, he was released to Graves, a man who pretended to work for law enforcement and who accused Johnson of stealing chickens.

Johnson was reportedly shot five times with bullets from Graves' gun near the Hillsborough River.

Despite a lengthy investigation that included grand jury testimony, no one was ever held accountable for Johnson's death. His lynching is one of five on record in the county, between 1890 and 1940.

To honor him and his memory, soil from the spot where he died was placed in a jar Tuesday. And in March 2022, it will be featured in a national memorial at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama.

"This is a history that we’ve been very silent about and so this soil collection project is a great opportunity for us to reflect on this history," said EJI Justice Fellow Keiana West.

It's a sentiment the Black History Curator at the Tampa Bay History Center, Fred Hearns, can agree with.

"It means everything to me. Because we all have to get our hands a little dirty in the soil of this nation, of this country," he said.

Hearns added there's also a chance there are other local victims that we simply don't know about. But to honor those we do know about and to avoid repeating history, he said we can all start by simply talking about our country's past.

"Well, they can start with their own family. They could start at their dinner table," he said.

Members of the Portico Justice Team, the Tampa/Hillsborough EJI Coalition, and others will also be chartering buses to bring Johnson's soil up to Alabama on March 4, 2022. They have invited anyone who is interested in going to join them.

Locally, a memorial will also be placed near the Hillsborough River for Johnson in 2022.