County poet laureate lends his voice to a majestic live oak

Alachua County Poet Laureate E. Stanley Richardson is standing under a majestic live oak in Newberry for a moment of closure.

The towering tree is a symbol of a story his family has told him over and over—every time they came near it.

“I can’t really explain it,” said Richardson, who was born in Alachua and is a 1980 graduate of Santa Fe High School. “It’s deep for me, a completion of something that began long ago for me.”

As a child living in Alachua, Stanley said he remembers that during car rides his parents would tell him the story of the lynchings in Newberry back in 1916.

The account of the lynchings is marked on the property by a historical plaque that reads:

“On August 19, 1916, African Americans living in the Jonesviile and Newberry communities were lynched. At 2:00 a.m., Constable George Wynne, Dr. L.G. Harris, and G.H. Blount drove to Boisey Long’s home in Jonesville to serve a warrant and question him about stolen hogs. Gunfire was exchanged with Long after Wynne and Harris entered the home, and all three men were wounded. Long escaped while the other men were taken for medical help. Wynne’s wounds were serious, and he died on the train to a Jacksonville hospital. Wynne was related to the Dudleys, a large local family, and a mob formed at their home. During the search for Long, the mob terrorized other African Americans living in the area, many related to Long. James Dennis, suspected of hiding Long, was shot to death by the mob. Local law enforcement helped the mob round up five African Americans and hold them in the Newberry jail. They were Dennis’ brother, Gilbert, and sister, Mary, a pregnant mother of four; Stella Young, Long’s partner and mother of his son; Andrew McHenry, Stella’s brother; and the Rev. Joshua Baskin, a farmer and pastor. The mob took them from the jail to the Newberry picnic grounds (W. Newberry Road and County Road 235) and hanged them.

The lynching was national news, and created a spectacle. Men, women, and children came from miles around to view the bodies.

On August 21, 1916, Boisey Long surrendered to the Rev. Squire Long, and was turned over to Alachua County Sheriff P.G. Ramsey in Gainesville. Ramsey, afraid of additional mob violence, transferred Long to a jail in Jacksonville.

An Alachua County grand jury took up the case on September 6th and investigated the actions of the lynch mob. The grand jury did not find anyone guilty for the lynchings and no one was ever punished.

Long was indicted for the murder of George Wynne. The trial was swift, and after seven minutes of deliberation, the jury issued a guilty verdict. Long was sentenced to death. The headstones of three victims of the Newberry Lynching of 1916, Andrew McHenry, James Dennis, and the Rev. Joshua Baskin, are in the cemetery of the Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church. Many of the victims’ descendants still live in the Jonesville community and attend the church, which traces its founding to 1860.

“I kept hearing this story about what happened at lynchings,” Richardson said. “It seems like the location would change, but the story has been with me my entire life. They would give me bits and pieces of the story and sometimes the tree would be in Jonesville, sometimes Newberry.”

For this reason, Richardson said he sees majestic live oak trees as storytellers.

“My relationship with these majestic live oaks is one of: What stories do they have?” Richardson said. “When I encounter these majestic live oaks, I want them to tell me something they have witnessed.”

In 2015 Richardson wrote a poem titled “CENTURY OAK, A Conversation With A Tree” to express this idea. And last week, Richardson met a videographer from the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) under a live oak near the lynching site and recited the poem.

The SPOHP is a public repository and research center dedicated to gathering, preserving, and promoting living memories for current and future generations.

Richardson marked the occasion on social media with a Facebook comment that also addressed the recent siege of the U.S. Capitol:

“Though I was sickened by the death and destruction caused by the frenzied mob, I was not as surprised as some of my contemporaries. This kind of mob violence is woven into the historical fabric of the American quilt and the terror of it told to me in stories passed on by my ancestors as a mechanism for my survival. That I should not forget, to be ever vigilant, lest I too fall victim to the evil menace.

“Today I traveled a few miles to Newberry, Florida, to the ‘picnic ground’ where in August of 1916, six African Americans, including a pregnant mother of four, were hanged, by a frenzied white mob.”

Alachua County and municipalities such as Newberry have recently embraced reconciliation efforts to help communities move forward. In 2018 county commissioners began a discussion for truth and reconciliation to face the area’s history of racial injustice and to repair it when and where possible.

One step in that reconciliation will happen on Feb. 5th at the location in Newberry where Richardson filmed his poem reading. A Soil Collection Ceremony at 24340 Newberry Lane will start at 10 a.m.

Richardson will be there again reciting his poem that he said “was born out of that loving relationship with the oaks.”

E. Stanley Richardson

CENTURY OAK

“A Conversation With A Tree”

As I walked by
The Tree Cried out
Why
Why don’t you hold me anymore ?
 
Sit beneath my shade
We barely ever talk
Like we once did
100 years ago
 
I know 
I know
You blame me
For being
 
…. Deep inside You
Hidden
….. In the blind spot 
of memory
 
All of
That
Pent up pain 
You
…. Must Feel
 
I know
I know
You blame me
 
Because,
If I 
… Had not been
They
 …. Would not have 
Dangled 
 
… Your brother
Your sister
… Your father
Your mother
 
….  From my limbs 
There would be
…. .. No blood 
On my branches
 
I would
Be 
Only brown 
 
…. Like you
With green hair 
Without tinge
 
With
No hint of red
On 
My wood 
 
Please
Please forgive me
 
… Had I known
If I could
… I would have
 
Plucked myself
Up
By 
The Root!
 
___________________________________
 
© E. Stanley Richardson
2015
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