The mayor of Newberry on his town’s work to acknowledge—
and heal from—its tragic racial past.

By Jordan Marlowe

Alachua County, home to Gainesville and the University of Florida, sits in the middle of North Central Florida. As a college town, Gainesville is a blue dot on the region’s deep-red political map. I live in that deep-red area, in Newberry, a small rural community roughly 15 miles west of Gainesville. The inherent tension created by our political geography occasionally draws Newberry into larger national conversations, and that happened in 2016 when a reporter called asking me why I was opposed to removing Confederate statues.

I was the mayor-elect of Newberry, and I was confused by the question. In Gainesville, a Confederate statue known as “Old Joe” had recently been removed from the Alachua County courthouse grounds by the county commission. But I had never taken a stance on Confederate statues, and Newberry doesn’t have any. Undeterred, the reporter asked whether Newberry should participate in the process of truth and reconciliation—a term new to me—that the county commissioners were launching to address historic racial injustice.

Her question was aimed at Newberry because our town has a tragic racial past. Around 2 a.m. on August 18, 1916, George Wynne, Alachua County deputy sheriff and constable of Newberry, accompanied by a young pharmacist named Lem Harris, tracked down a Black man they believed had stolen hogs. They found their suspect, Boisy Long, hiding in a shack in the pine woods outside of town and told him he was under arrest.

Two versions of what happened next survive. At his trial, Long claimed that Wynne and Harris had tried to kill him, and after Wynne shot him, he fired back in self-defense. Harris testified that Long opened fire on Wynne and him after Wynne instructed Long to get dressed. Six shots were exchanged. Long and Harris were wounded superficially, but Wynne was critically wounded and died later that morning.

Long fled, and the county sheriff formed a posse. They hunted down Long’s half-brother James Dennis and killed him with a shotgun blast to his back. They jailed five other members of the Dennis family—three men and two women, one of them Long’s wife—on charges of helping Long escape. In the predawn hours of August 19, a mob of 200 abducted the prisoners from the jail and hanged them from an oak tree, claiming their deaths would “encourage” other African Americans in the community to reveal where Long was hiding. The bodies were left hanging until the afternoon, drawing hundreds of onlookers.

The next morning, Long turned himself in to protect the rest of his family and friends. Two months later, he stood trial in Gainesville, and after deliberating seven minutes, the all-white jury pronounced him guilty. He was hanged on the grounds of the Gainesville jail, two blocks from the Confederate soldier, Old Joe.

After the lynchings, everyone in the mob swore to keep silent about what had transpired, walking forward and touching one of the lynching ropes as they made their oaths. The coroner ruled that all five had died from freak accidents, including falling from a tree or running into a fence. For more than 80 years, the event seemed to vanish from history. In 2003, the late University of Florida professor Patricia Hilliard-Nunn began researching what had happened to the victims, who came to be known as the Newberry Six. But for most of the public, the details remained shrouded in silence.

The reporter’s call was the first time I had been asked about those lynchings, or about any question of race, and my answer was practical. I told her that small-town mayors should focus on local issues. After all, what could we do about race relations on a national stage? If Gainesville residents wanted to take a statue down in their city, that was their business. As far as truth and reconciliation, I said none of my residents had asked us to do that.

After I hung up, I felt uneasy. Looking back, I see that my response to the reporter was a political sidestep that had the consequence of continuing to silence our history. I decided to call some African-American neighbors and ask whether they believed racial tension existed in our town and if we needed to talk about our history.

I called about 10 Black residents. They all said everything was fine. They said they would tell me if there was something we should talk about. Each conversation was so similar it was almost formulaic. I didn’t catch it then, but I now see those as culturally coordinated responses based on years of anticipating what white people want to hear. This is painful to write, but looking back, I understand that I was just another white man. Worse, I was just another white politician asking a question that they had good reason to believe I wasn’t prepared to address.

Six months later I received a call from Judy Hasan Lewis, the daughter of Newberry’s first African-American mayor, Freddie Warmack. Both were part of the group I had previously called for advice. Like everyone else, Lewis had assured me that me everything was fine. This time, she told me there was something we should talk about.

“I want you to help our community have a conversation about race,” she said.

“Did something happen?” I asked. “Why did you change your mind?”

“It is time,” she said. And that was all she would say.

As I thought about her call, I realized the decision had been made. An African American had broken through the silence and asked me to start a discussion about our shared history of racial injustice. This was not a request for white citizens, including me, to ignore or deny. I called Lewis back and asked her to help me organize a community meeting.

That meeting was the beginning of a four-year journey into our racial history. It has included personal soul-searching and public gatherings, including a Sunday picnic where 700 people from eight different Newberry congregations gathered after hearing sermons on forgiveness and healing.

We also organized a bus trip to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, site of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the National Lynching Memorial. This is a powerful place.

Monuments hang from the ceiling, forcing visitors to look up in much the same way that lynch mobs looked up at victims hanging from Southern trees. Each county in each state has its own memorial bearing the names of every person lynched there. We collected soil from the site of the Newberry lynchings, and six jars of that soil now reside in the museum.

Our efforts to confront the past recently culminated in a mayoral proclamation, a public apology, and the installation of a historical marker that tells the story of the six people who were lynched in Newberry in 1916.

Our story began with Gainesville’s Confederate statue, Old Joe. Old Joe told one version of America’s past. The marker in Newberry tells another. Old Joe is gone, but the damage his story has done is not. The marker in Newberry won’t fix that damage, and neither will the next marker. But as more conversations and memorials take shape, we will no longer be able to hide from the truth, because it will be all around us. Then, and only then, can we say we have established the truth in the process of truth and reconciliation. Reaching reconciliation will be harder, but Newberry has stories to tell in that regard as well.

Joy Glanzer and Gerald Cheeseborough

On the bus trip to Montgomery, Joy Glanzer, a 66-year-old white woman, and Gerald Cheeseborough, a 66-year-old Black man, ended up sitting together. Longtime Newberry residents, they had lived three blocks from each other for many years but had never met. As they talked to each other during the two-day trip north, they realized how much they had in common. When we entered the memorial, they walked together.

At the end of the memorial lies a glass coffin containing soil collected from sites where unknown victims were terrorized and lynched. As they stood there, looking at that coffin, Cheeseborough put his arm around Glanzer. Then he said, “If I had done this when I was a child, I would have been lynched.”

Today the two friends meet for breakfast every month. I know one small story does not achieve reconciliation, but it is a good place to start. And when I ask myself—as I have, more than once—if despite all our efforts, we have really made a difference or changed anything—I think about that story.

I am proud of the work being done in Newberry, and I no longer think rural mayors are irrelevant in the struggle for racial justice. Indeed, after four years of working on truth and reconciliation, I see us as on the frontline. The leaders in small-town America are the ones who have to do this work. We are closest to our communities, and whatever else this may be, this is community work.

Jordan Marlowe

Jordan Marlowe is the mayor of Newberry, Florida and a history teacher at Newberry High School. He was recently elected to the Florida Humanities Board of Directors.

FORUM Spring 2022 Cover

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.