A Black man put on display after being fatally shot by police in 1925 was honored during a virtual ceremony on Sunday.
Willie Washington was 22 years old when he was shot to death in front of his family at their downtown Jacksonville home by a Jacksonville police detective. Police tear-gassed the chauffer’s attic to try and force him out of the home.
The shooting followed a weeklong manhunt for an unnamed Black man who was accused of attacking a white woman. What happened after Washington’s death is why activists consider the case a lynching.
Police guarded the morgue where Washington’s body was because members of the community had talked about taking his body and burning it.
Washington’s body was displayed in the rotunda of the Duval County Jail, where hundreds of people flocked to gawk at his corpse. Mayor John T. Alsop, three judges, Sheriff W.H. Dowling, the city’s police chief and local leaders ultimately agreed to display Washington’s body at the jail so people could see for themselves that he was dead.
A report from the Times-Union published at the time that “the body of the negro was placed on exhibit” for a six-hour period and that hundreds of people viewed the “remains of the brown criminal who stirred Jacksonville to a pitch of excitement not experienced in decades.”
Ninety-six years later, Washington was honored during a ceremony organized by the 904Ward organization.
Kimberly Allen, chief executive officer of the 904Ward nonprofit organization based in Jacksonville, said the organization is dedicated to pursuing an end to racism by creating safe places for deep conversation and learning.
“Our desire is to positively impact Jacksonville by having our community to embrace an unvarnished understanding of our racial history even when the painful truth of our past is in direct conflict with the future for which we are aiming,” Allen told the Florida Times-Union.
About 75 people attended the virtual event, which featured a soil collection ceremony by the Jacksonville Commemoration Project. Washington is the fifth person to be commemorated by a soil-collection ceremony in the city.
The soil collections consist of project organizers collecting soil from the places where the lynching victims were killed, then placing it in two jars with the victim’s name. One of the jars is kept locally while the other is sent to a national memorial in Alabama.
904Ward organizers plan to install historical markers at the sites of the lynchings.
“So, today we dedicate this space. A place filled with tragedy and pain but a space sacred because we remember,” Hazzan Jesse Holzer, cantor of the Jacksonville Jewish Center said of the site where Washington was lynched. “We dedicate this moment and mark this place as holy. We say his name, Willie Washington, and speak his truth, our truth.”
Holzer called the period that claimed the lives of countless Black lynching victims, “an era of racial terrorism.”
Organizers say they have identified eight Duval County lynchings as part of a wave of racial violence that reached at least 20 states between 1870 and 1950.
Two Duval CountySheriff’s Office administrators were assigned to represent the agency at the ceremony.