60 years later, a cry for justice in Fla. killing

Black teen who liked white girl was taken at gunpoint and drowned in Suwannee River

December 10, 2006|By Audra D.S. Burch | Audra D.S. Burch,McClatchy-Tribune

LIVE OAK, Fla. -- It's a beautiful day, warm and still like summer, but Samuel Beasley doesn't want to be here. He hasn't been back since he was a boy, even though he has lived most of his 63 years near the Suwannee River, its shallow waters, its limestone banks, its old oak trees swagged in moss.

Too much pain, 60 years, maybe more. Beasley, gentle and wise and plain-spoken, knows something about this place and its people. Something about what can happen when a black boy likes a white girl. Something that lingers and haunts, that distorts the soul long after a Sunday afternoon years ago.

"The river is evil," Beasley says softly of this tea-colored ribbon. "It took too many of our people. It took Willie James."

It is here, just where the water puddles and the sky opens, that Willie James Howard, perhaps the one black youth in town whom everybody believed had a shot at something good, was taken. Just 15, he was dragged from his home at gunpoint, hogtied and forced into the river on Jan. 2, 1944, by three white men for the cultural offense of having a crush on one of their daughters.

He was never seen alive again. But he was never forgotten in the black community, his death affecting the people of Live Oak in sometimes unexpected ways.

"We need what really happened to come out. Everybody needs to know the truth," says Beasley, a former councilman who was elected as the first black person to serve on the council since Reconstruction.

To appreciate the legacy of Willie James is to understand how three men -- a cousin of the dead youth, a funeral director and a Miami historian -- men without much in common beyond a deep sense of loss, have come to demand justice.

Eleven years before Emmett Till was lynched for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, an atrocity that helped launch the civil rights movement, the Willie James Howard story became a cautionary tale about what happens when blacks cross the line. Under the patina of good race relations, progress and Southern hospitality, the story, in all its layers, still resonates in this sawmill town.

"I can remember hearing the story like it was last week," Beasley says. "It was a huge story. It defined us."

There were no arrests; there was no trial, just a stunted investigation typical of the civil rights crimes of the era. Among the activists who rallied for justice was a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who later would sit on the Supreme Court.

Now, all these years later, Miami historian Marvin Dunn, who is writing a book about lynchings in Florida, has asked Attorney General (and Gov.-elect) Charlie Crist to reopen the case -- one of the country's few remaining unresolved civil rights cases.

"We are interested and reviewing the facts and documents," says Allison Bethel, head of the state civil rights office.

Though the suspects are long dead, Crist or his successor, Bill McCollum, has the power as attorney general to pursue the case, as a new generation of prosecutors has reopened other cases across the South. These "atonement trials" include last year's conviction of Edgar Ray Killen in the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

"The clock does not stop ticking on this kind of offense," says Dunn, a retired Florida International University professor who ran across the case while researching his book.

"I got so angry when I read about the case. He was just a child," Dunn says. "This community needs a real investigation. They need healing."

Willie James Howard was supposed to be somebody. Relatives and friends say he had that hard-to-pinpoint, hard-to-explain thing, uprightness, perhaps, that somehow would have propelled him into respectability, past the grim, one-dimensional landscape of black life in the 1940s South. They talk lovingly about the youth who was so special because he worked at the white-owned dime store downtown.

"He was going to grow up to be good and right. Just made a mistake, and them mean folk got him," Mammie Perry, 95, his aunt and oldest living kin, says from her house in Orlando.

"Put you in the mind of a Will Smith. He was charming," says Dorothy DePass, a former classmate. "Everybody knew Willie James, and everybody called him by both names."

By all accounts, Willie James, also called "Giddy Boy" for his good nature, was smart, funny, good-looking, popular, a great singer -- and smitten with Cynthia Goff, a white girl he worked with after school at Van Priest's. They were the same age, 10th-graders who attended segregated schools a few hundred yards apart.

During Christmas break in 1943, Willie James gave Goff and his other co-workers holiday cards. He signed the one for Goff, "With L [love]."

Perhaps she was vexed that a black youth had given her a card, his gesture too familiar, too presumptuous for the social attitudes of the time. So Willie James wrote an apology dated Jan. 1, 1944.

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