Alachua County’s Journey to Truth and Reconciliation FEATURE STORY

“Our goal is to educate the public about our history and the legacy it has left in our disparities. It is not about placing blame,” said Jackie Davis, EJI liaison and steering committee member for the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project.

Beginning in 2018 and continuing over the past six years, Alachua County and hundreds of community members have embarked on a Truth and Reconciliation project in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. The project shines a light on the dark side of our county’s history and looks for healing.

The result of that work has led to the creation of a unique county-wide effort unlike anywhere else in Florida – and arguably the nation – at a time when talking about race relations and slavery has been considered controversial by some.

Talks of truth and reconciliation, particularly commemorating those who lost their lives locally through racial terror, were sparked by a debate over the removal of a Confederate statue that was prominently displayed outside the Alachua County Administration Building on the corner of South Main Street and West University Avenue.

Inscribed on the 113-year-old statue's base were the words, “In the cause of right, they died a martyr’s death.” For many, those words were even more problematic than the structure itself.

Alachua County officials had been conversing with concerned residents for more than a year to discuss the disposition and replacement of the controversial figure, nicknamed “Old Joe,” which remained throughout the Jim Crow era.

In the end, the Kirby Smith chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which unveiled the statue on Robert E. Lee's birthday in 1904, volunteered in 2017 to pay to have it moved to a local cemetery where Confederate soldiers were buried.

For many local residents, it was the first step toward healing.

During the statue discussions, then-County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson suggested the county should honor lynching victims with a statue or markers at the sites of these atrocities.

Alachua County Community Remembrance Project

In January 2020, the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project (ACCRP) was launched after county officials and community members first visited the site of EJI’s Legacy Museum and its National Memorial to Peace and Justice, which show visitors the harsh realities of life for Black residents living through the Jim Crow era.

“The site, dedicated to lynching victims, is stunning,” said Diedre Houchen, the county’s equity and community outreach manager, who organized a follow-up trip to the memorial in 2022. “It’s a very solemn experience. The artwork conveys a profound message of freedom and pain.”

Jars on display at the Equal Justice Initiative's National Memorial for Peace and Justice hold soil collected from sites where lynchings occurred.

Through open dialogue and the help of historians and eight subcommittees, residents have recognized those who lost their lives unjustly while also exploring how racism played a role in our history and its effects in the present day.

The process was encouraged by EJI, which called on communities across the country to research local lynchings. Lynching is defined as a racially motivated, extrajudicial killing carried out by more than one person who didn’t face legal consequences for their actions.

The Alachua County Historical Commission found 46 lynchings occurring between 1867 and 1926, the most of any county in Florida. Though many more are still unaccounted for, EJI requires two forms of confirmation to prove the lynching occurred.

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut IV said he was shocked to learn about the extent of the atrocities. He believes sharing the history has brought the community together, despite criticism that it would further divide people.

In February of 2020, the county held its first major event, “The Memorial to Honor the Victims of Lynching’ at Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church.

“We need to recognize that our history is not great in terms of how African Americans were treated, and having diversity in these discussions is key,” Chestnut said. “It’s about understanding, not blaming or shaming anyone.

Acknowledging the past, looking to the future

The era of racial terrorism and racist policies has left a persistent mark on Alachua County. An example is how zoning laws were constructed to concentrate Black residents and poverty. Only through acknowledging and talking about the remaining challenges can true healing continue.

Read the report, "Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County."

“There is a misconception that talking about the history somehow deepens animosity, but I think it’s the converse of that,” said Dr. Jacque Micieli-Voutsinas, an assistant professor of Museum Studies at the University of Florida. “It doesn’t mean it’s easy work or that it’s not uncomfortable at times, but it’s necessary work to move forward.”

Equal Justice Initiative activities

Part of the initiative called for a series of community events: Soil collection ceremonies, essay contests, historical markers and community quilts. Each one pays tribute to lynching victims and is critical to EJI’s Truth and Reconciliation model.

Alachua County has hosted soil collection events with jars provided by EJI. Soil from the site where someone was lynched is placed in two separate jars. One is kept for the community, while the other is sent to the Legacy Museum to join others from across the country to preserve and protect the memory of those lost.

Alachua County and community leaders unveil a “Lynching in America” historical marker at the county’s administration building in Gainesville, Florida on Oct. 23, 2021.

Historical markers also serve as a prominent presence to educate communities, while community quilts are made to memorialize each lynching victim individually.

To educate the younger generation, high schools hold essay contests where students are challenged to write about historical events and connect them to present-day issues.

Cities step up

ACCRP established subcommittees for each municipality to identify each community’s history and the enduring legacies they face today.

In Alachua, for example, community leaders and researchers discovered the storied life of Matthew Lewey, who served in various roles during a time of oppression. Lewey not only served in the Civil War but went on to become the mayor of Newnansville (Alachua), was elected to the House of Representatives and was Florida’s first Black newspaper editor (Gainesville Sentinel).

The County Commission declared Dec. 18, 2023 as Matthew Lewey Day in Alachua County.

The City of Newberry’s effort included adding the lynching victims known as the “Newberry Six” into the high school curriculum after extensive research from the late historian Patricia Hilliard-Nunn. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, the town held a community picnic, shared stories, and heard a presentation from students at Newberry High School about the town’s history of racial terror.

“It ended up being the most positive, loving moment that it could have possibly been,” said Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe, who admittedly didn’t know how the community would handle the conversations.

Learn more about the soil collection ceremonies.

When Jianna Williams was elected the first Black female mayor in Micanopy history, she made the Truth and Reconciliation project a priority. She held a ceremony at the Willie Mae Stokes Community Center, where dozens of community members showed up to participate.

“This has given our town healing with sensitivity,” Williams said. “It’s about finding ways to heal from that trauma and conscious ways to grow from it. It’s about a diverse group of people with a common goal to unify and educate. I think it’s great the county has made this a priority.”

The site of the Confederate statue comes full circle

In addition to those efforts, on June 19, 2023, the county unveiled the Sankofa bird statue to honor Hilliard-Nunn, who dedicated years of her life to informing others about the county’s history of racism, slavery and lynchings.

The mythical creature, which sits in the same site where the Confederate monument once stood, is an adinkra symbol from the Akan people of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana and serves as a reminder to bring the past forward to remember, amend, and understand and indicates the pursuit of knowledge.

Digital Heritage Trail Map

The digital heritage map is the most recent project to emerge from the community. Subcommittees and a host of community partners have helped identify 141 locations that have historical significance for Black residents.

Among the locations are churches, historical Black-owned businesses, cemeteries, lynching sites and schools. The map pushes back against the systematic, century-long effort to erase Black history.

The map shows Gainesville has the most identified locations with 31, while the smaller cities have dozens more that residents can take a small tour to view. Some historical markers have been placed at the sites, with many more planned for the future.

The map is still in its first phase and will be periodically updated as more locations are available.

View the map and learn more about each location.

The work continues

There is still much to do to fulfill the challenges the Equal Justice Initiative laid out. The Alachua County community and the people involved in this effort are devoted to seeing it through to completion.

“We continue to move forward despite how polarizing these topics can be. Truth is the cornerstone of any meaningful reconciliation and the idea of reconciliation is what drives us,” said Deputy County Manager Carl Smart. “It’s such a difficult issue to talk about for a lot of folks, almost like it’s an unwritten rule or a blemish on the community. But without talking about it, there is no healing.”

Among the dozens of local events Alachua County and its Community Remembrance Project have hosted since 2018 include:

  • Soil collection ceremonies in Gainesville, Newberry, High Springs, Micanopy, Hawthorne-Waldo, Alachua-Newnansville and Monteocha-Gordon-Lacrosse
  • Held panel discussions and remembrance ceremonies with historians to discuss lynchings, victims, renaming Confederate memorials, racial terror and relevant books.
  • High School essay contests throughout Gainesville, Newberry High School and for students in High Springs, Alachua-Newnansville and Monteocha-Gordon-Lacrosse, Micanopy and Hawthorne-Waldo.
  • Placed historical markers in Newberry, Alachua-Newnansville, at the Alachua County Administration Building and the Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-purpose Center in Gainesville.
  • Candlelight vigils and memorial services for victims of lynchings.
  • The Sankofa bird memorial dedication and launching of the ACCRP website.

See the full event calendar and links to each event.

Story by Andrew Caplan, Alachua County public information officer. Caplan is a former investigative reporter and editor with 10 years of experience covering state and local governments.