Aug 30, 2022 - News

1934 Robert Johnson lynching remembered in Tampa

A historical marker on the 1934 lynching of Robert Johnson in Tampa being unveiled in Tampa on Monday.
A historical marker about the 1934 lynching of Robert Johnson is unveiled in Tampa on Monday. Photo: Ben Montgomery/Axios

The people of Tampa unveiled a historical marker Monday in memory of Robert Johnson, a Black man who was the victim of a lynching in 1934.

Driving the news: A grassroots group, led by Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, planted the marker on a prime piece of downtown real estate near the Tampa Riverwalk, south of the Madame Fortune Taylor Bridge.

  • The placard relays what is known about the killing, which was covered by the daily newspapers at the time but remains shrouded in mystery. No one was ever held accountable.

Flashback: In the wee hours of the morning of Jan. 30, 1934, the city police handed Johnson, who had been arrested two days earlier during an assault investigation and cleared, to an armed man who claimed to be law enforcement.

  • That man, T.M. Graves, said he was a "deputy constable" and was transporting Johnson to county jail on outstanding warrants.
  • Graves later testified he was surrounded by cars in downtown Tampa, kidnapped, and driven two hours north to the Hillsborough River at 50th Street, where Johnson was shot five times.
  • Graves reported the killing, led police to the body, and showed bruises from what he said was an assault, but no assailant was ever named. Several probes were fruitless.
A newspaper clipping of the front page of the Tampa Times on Jan. 31, 1934.
The front page of the Tampa Times on Jan. 31, 1934. Clipping via Newspapers.com

Context: Florida led the South in lynchings per capita from 1880 to 1940, and Johnson's would soon be overshadowed by the spectacle lynching of Claude Neal in Jackson County, west of Tallahassee, in which some 5,000 white people participated in the mutilation and hanging of a Black farm hand.

  • That murder, in late October 1934, was broadcast far and wide by the then-fledgeling NAACP and brought the United States Congress closer than ever to passing anti-lynching legislation.

Yes, but: No bill would pass, despite more than 200 attempts, until this past March, 88 years later, when President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law.

The latest: In addition to erecting the marker, the group collected soil from the site of the lynching and sent it to the EJI's Legacy Museum, where a collection of more than 800 similar jars of soil from lynching sites across the country is on display.

  • EJI invites every community where one of the 6,500 lynchings of Black people in America occurred to confront their history through its truth and reconciliation program.

What they're saying: "It's so important that we don't try to gloss over it," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said at the unveiling of the Johnson marker Monday. "It's time now to continue with this reckoning."

A historical marker that says "Lynching in America."
Photo: Ben Montgomery/Axios
avatar

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Tampa Bay.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Tampa Bay stories

No stories could be found

Tampa Baypostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Tampa Bay.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more