I never knew it would be so emotional, but I found myself crying over the memory of a man I never met. Isaac Barrett was lynched in Orangedale by the St. Johns River in June 1897, 59 years before I was born. I only learned of him in the last year, but when I saw his memorial hanging over a water wall at the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I could not hold back the tears. It could’ve been my grandparents, who made their home on the St. Johns and are buried just a few miles north of where Barrett was lynched.
Sobered by the sound of flowing water, we walked through rows and rows of hanging sculptures representing more than 4,000 blacks who lost their lives through acts of terror and public shaming without the due process of law. Mobs had taken this man from the arms of law enforcement and strung him up on a tree by the riverbank. No trial, no judge, no jury of his peers ever got a chance to hear his case, let alone pass judgment on his fate. A hooded mob stole him away and became his executioners. We don’t know if he was guilty or innocent, only that he was accused during a time when the word of a black man was worthless next to that of a white person and no quest for truth was necessary.
According news reports from the time, Isaac Barrett told the sheriff he came to the rescue of the Hewson family who were victims of a brutal, bloody beating. He had worked for the family and lived on their property just two miles from the river. The report reads that, when he heard the distress call, he ran to them to provide aid. When the sheriff arrived, the bloodied wife and daughter gave an account of being attacked just moments earlier. The family, mother, father, daughter and son were covered with blood, Barrett was not. The sheriff said he later admitted to the crime and signed a confession. He was “hog tied” and being transported to the jail when a mob of hooded men stole him away from the buckboard wagon the sheriff was transporting him on, took him directly to the river and hanged him from a tree.
The story of his lynching was retold in The New York Times, perhaps by a reporter who happened by on a riverboat or steamer headed south on the St. Johns, or sent to them by someone local who wanted people to know about the injustice that had occurred. It was a time in American history when lynching was prevalent. Lynchings were used to intimidate and invoke fear, according to Brian Stevens, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative that has collected stories and created the memorial and the Legacy Museum to remember the lives of Americans taken by terrorist mob action during a period of Jim Crow laws and lawless disregard for human life of anyone with dark pigmentation in their skin and those who sympathized with them. Many were hanged, some were shot, burned, mutilated or dismembered in public settings, often accompanied by public announcements and gatherings in a picnic- or carnival-like setting. There is no evidence this was the case with Isaac Barrett. We have not found any record of family who mourned him or his burial site. We only have the account of how he died. For that we are deeply sorrowful.
Trish Becker and Mary Cobb have worked tirelessly to help us find additional information on the Barrett family as well as the Hewson family, both victims of violence.
We have not ignored the story of the Hewson family and the horror they experienced; we acknowledge their pain. But we also know due process was superseded by mob rule and a human being was left dangling from a tree. Our object here is not to be gruesome, but to show the injustice of death by lynching.
Barrett is but one of more than 4,000 lynchings identified by EJI as it prepared to create the monument and museum. It is the only one positively identified in St. Johns County between 1866 and 1950, when they tapered off. As a national movement toward reconciliation through acknowledgement of these horrendous killings, EJI is offering counties the opportunity to claim a duplicate monument for localities where lynchings
We collected two jars of soil and carried one to the Legacy Museum; the other will be displayed at the Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center. We have applied to have a marker placed at the location of his death and intend to ask the county to request the duplicate memorial. If they refuse, we will accept that also.
We live in a community surrounded by history at every turn, but history must be presented without filter or aggrandizement. Visiting this seat of the Confederacy with all its monuments and markers showed me that we, too, can present all history and be embraced for telling our truth. Montgomery was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and was once the largest slave region in the country. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started out there, the Montgomery bus boycott thrusting him into the nation’s gaze. If Montgomery can tell stories that are raw and remind of grief and brokenness that leads to healing and hope, then St. Johns County and St. Augustine should also be able to tell our stories knowing that only the truth will set us free. A truth that is not always pretty, happy or prideful.
Our history is littered with injustices since the first modern recordings of life here, beginning with displacement of Native Americans. Every ethnic group can claim some form of discrimination here. This should make us all more sympathetic and forgiving, willing to face the ills of the past and build on them to create a healthier tomorrow without ignoring or sugarcoating the truth. We can face it head on and work through the hard places in history to create a community where true compassion is not window-dressing or fancy garnish.
A monument to a man unknown to most historians and residents in St. Augustine is one way to see what we did, meditate on the injustice of it and hope for the new bonds it will foster.
Seeing people in Montgomery from all ethnic and economic backgrounds come together to celebrate the opening of a museum to the legacy of slavery was truly heartwarming. As I cried, I embraced and was embraced by women of European, African, Asian, and Mediterranean descent. We all mourned together and rejoiced together to be a part of something so profound, so humbling, so emotional, so healing. I am just selfish enough to want the same for my city.
Phillips is the director of the Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center in St. Augustine.
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