In the waning days of the Reich, leading Nazi Party members lobbied the Führer for a tactical retreat. The Atlantikwall had been breached. Europe was clearly untenable. The proposed solution—which the autocratic Adolf Hitler dismissed in favor of a more theatrical bunker suicide—was to concentrate the remaining German forces and dig into the rugged terrain of the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, near Switzerland. This Alpine Redoubt would have been impregnable, allowing the Nazis to live to fight another day.
And, lo!, our own Switzerland, Florida, is part of an Alpine Redoubt of sorts. It’s St. Johns County, where the forces of old-school white supremacy are apparently alive and well—and very interested in the activities of St. Augustine’s Lincolnville Museum.
Across most of the state, we have the (relative) luxury of holding a (relatively) civilized discourse around the many unfulfilled promises of “post-race” America. But here, in St. Johns County, we’re so pre-post-race, it’s not even funny.
This past weekend, the Lincolnville Museum, in association with the St. Augustine chapter of Women’s March Florida, planned to unveil a historical marker on the banks of the St. Johns River, at the site where Isaac Barrett was lynched in 1897. The gesture was inspired by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, which has documented thousands of lynchings.
Hours before the Oct. 20 ceremony, the marker was stolen.
The organizers carried on, planting a makeshift marker in the presence of several dozen attendees. The speakers noted the unique circumstances. Similar markers have been erected across the South, all without incident.
“Why is this the first marker stolen from this project?” asked Mary Cobb, Captain of the St. Augustine chapter of Women’s March Florida. “Because St. Johns County has a problem.”
These same speakers also noted that Isaac Barrett was accused of a serious crime, and that he wasn’t necessarily innocent.
A mysterious, pre-emptive email arrived in our inbox the day after the ceremony (at which I was a silent spectator). Its author warned us to “do some research before installing lynching monuments and writing articles.” (It was also addressed to the Lincolnville Museum; see Mail on page 5.)
The author also provided a link to an ancient New York Times blurb, which was already part of the documentation behind the marker project. (Indeed, the NYT account was even cited in a previous Folio Weekly Backpage Editorial penned by Lincolnville Museum director Regina Gayle Phillips.)
The problem is not that an innocent man was lynched. The problem is that the question of Barrett’s innocence or guilt was never determined in a court of law.
When an elite, Ivy League Supreme Court nominee is “denied due process” (in a job interview), or when a Saudi prince who purchased the loyalty of Jared Kushner is “denied due process” (in the court of public opinion), the Tea Party is self-righteously indignant. But when a black man is denied real due process and lynched by a real mob, they defer to an archived New York Times article based on hearsay and published over a hundred years ago. (I guess that’s when NYT wasn’t “FAKE NEWS.”)
I’ve said it before, and I’m fairly certain I’ll be forced to say it again: the intellectual dishonesty of this current crop of right-wing “intelligentsia” is the seam around which their entire movement will eventually unravel.
When push comes to shove, though, they will fall back on the kind of bald, might-makes-right ideology we saw in St. Johns County this past weekend. At the end of the day, “the South” doesn’t need an argument. It has a history.
Now, as a carpet-bagging Yankee from way, way up in South Florida (this is not entirely sarcastic; I do hail from northern Palm Beach County), I realize I’m wholly (or at least partially) unqualified to pronounce on “Southern” issues. So be it. My Southern brothers and sisters are perfectly capable of getting their own house in order.
I am a Floridian, however, and I know this vast, varied state better than any St. Johns County old boy.
The history that these walking anachronisms celebrate is not Florida’s history. The era during which their great-grandaddies reigned was a brief, unpleasant chapter in a greater history stretching back millennia. That history will march forward—for at least another few decades, until the rising tide claims this bizarre and glorious Atlantis.
But that’s a story for another editorial. Watch this space.