Like its Southern sister states, Florida was a hotbed of that peculiar form of southern justice known as lynching. While reasons for lynchings varied, typically, the alleged rape of a white woman, or what was considered illicit consensual sexual relations between black men and white women, often was the cause of white mob violence against blacks.
Some American history books do note the gruesome 1934 lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida, but ten years later, a lesser known but equally despicable lynching took place in Live Oak, Florida, another small town near Tallahassee.
Willie James Howard, then 15 years old, attended the local Douglass School, named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and worked part-time at a local five-and-dime store where he swept floors. Howard worked alongside a young white woman named Cynthia Goff, who attended the then all-white Suwannee High School.
In December of 1943, Howard handed Christmas cards to his fellow co-workers, including Cynthia. Cynthia showed the card to her father, A.P. Goff, who had been a member of the Florida legislature and later served as Postmaster for Suwannee County. Rebuffed in his amorous professions, Willie Howard later allegedly penned an apology letter to Cynthia that included:
Just a few lines to let you hear from me. I am well and hope you are the same. This is what I said on that Christmas card. From W. J. H. With L.[love] I hope you will understand what I mean. That is what I said. Now please don’t get angry with me because you can never tell what may get in somebody. I did not put it in there my self. God did. I can’t help what he does, can I? I know you don’t think much of our kind of people but we don’t hate you all. We want to be your all friends but you won’t let us. Please don’t let anybody see this. I hope I haven’t made you mad. If I did tell me about it and I will forget about it. I wish this was a northern state. I guess you call me fresh. Write and tell me what you think of me, good or bad. Sincerely yours, I love your name. I love your voice, for a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice.” (Excerpted from “Life of a Negro in Suwannee” by historian Dr. Tameka B. Hobbs)
Mr. Goff later swore that Howard had written a love letter to his daughter, a violation of the social mores of the time that forbade black men from expressing amorous desires toward white women. Goff, along with two of his friends, paid a visit to Howard’s father and forced him by gunpoint to coerce his son to ride with them to an embankment along the Suwannee River. Goff and his cronies later swore that they only intended to have Howard’s father whip him to teach a lesson; Howard’s father later swore that the three white men had told his son that he had the choice of being shot or jumping off a cliff into the cold river below. Young Willie James Howard plunged to his death and his father was sworn to secrecy.
Harry T. Moore, then President of the Florida State Conference of Branches of the NAACP and a Suwannee County native, investigated the case and wrote to Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice who was serving at the time as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Marshall later wrote to Florida Senator Claude Pepper, a man often lauded for his latter stances on civil rights but who curiously concluded at the time that there was little that he could do in the Howard matter. The same held true for then Governor Spessard Holland, a man whose name is synonymous with my law school alma mater, the University of Florida, but one who also concluded that there was little that could be done other than convening a grand jury in the matter.
A grand jury was convened but as was then custom (then and often now), no indictments were issued against Howard’s assailants. Fearing reprisals, Howard’s family soon fled Suwannee County and moved to Orlando, where they lived the remainder of their years mourning the senseless loss of their only child–a loss that was not met with justice.
In 1951, Florida NAACP leader Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriet, depicted here, were killed when terrorists from the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb at their home on Christmas Day.
To date, the Moore’s murder remains unsolved…