The Lynching of Willie James Howard (1944)
He was Florida’s Emmett Till.
I was about fifteen years old in August 1955 and living with my grandmother, Leona, in DeLand when I heard and read about the Emmett Till lynching in Money, Mississippi. Till was a young black boy who was lynched by three white men for getting fresh with a white woman. The Till killing shocked the nation, especially after the boy’s mother insisted upon an open casket at his funeral. She said she wanted the world to see what was done to her son. I saw his gross disfigurement in Jet Magazine. It was the first photograph that I had ever seen of an actual dead person. I was both reviled and fascinated.
Beyond that, this was the first time that I realized that a black boy who was about my age could actually be killed for just speaking to a white woman. But when Emmett Till and I were both about four years old, a black child in Florida was lynched for the very same reason and almost no one knew about it and nothing was done about it. That child’s name was Willie James Howard and his ghost still haunts Suwannee County.
Suwannee County was chartered on December 21, 1858. The city of Live Oak, named for the huge oak trees that provided shade for travelers, was established in 1863. It would eventually become the county seat. Located in the soil-rich panhandle, the area was a part of the so-called Florida Black Belt where agriculture thrived, especially cotton, and where many black farm workers were needed.
By all accounts, Willie James was a happy, smart, friendly, likable boy who could sing well. His classmate, Dorothy Depass, described him as clean, neat and always dressed nicely because he was an only child and his parents could afford to dress him well.
A retired public school teacher at the black school that Willie James attended, Lafancis Stevens, shown here with a relative, described Willie James as a respectful, polite, nice young man. She said that if he saw you coming, he would step aside. “He could sing very well. He was always happy. I never got to teach him because I only taught girls at the time. He was always singing.”
Over the Christmas holidays of 1943, Willie James Howard, then fifteen years old and in the tenth grade, and had a job as a delivery boy for the Van Priest Five and Dime Store in downtown Live Oak. The store was located in this building photographed in 2006. It has since been changed to a novelty store. It was unusual for a black boy to be working inside a store or making deliveries.
Apparently, Willie James became infatuated with a 17 year old white girl named Cynthia Goff who also worked in the store. Bubbly Willie James sent all of the female employees of the store a Christmas card. When he heard that Cynthia had become upset upon receiving the card he wrote her this letter which is copied here as he wrote it.
Just a few line to let you hear from me I am well and hope you are the same. This is what I said on that Christmas card. From W.J.H. with L. I hope you will understand what I mean. That is what I said now please don’t get angry with me because you can never tell what may get in somebody I did not put it in there myself God did I can’t help what he does can I. I know you don’t think much of our kind of people but we don’t hate you all we want to be your all friends but you want let us please don’t let anybody see this. I hope I haven’t made you mad if I did tell me about it an I will forget about it. I wish this was a northern state. I guess you call me fresh. Write an tell me what you think of me good or bad.
Sincerely yours, with L from Y.K.W.
To Cynthia Goff
I love your name.
I love your voice.
For a S.H. you are my choice.
Cynthia’s father, Alex P. Goff, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, got a hold of the letter. It is not clear if the girl gave her father the letter or if he discovered it on his own. In any case, Goff was incensed. He got two of his friends, Reginald H. Scott Sr. and Seldon B. McCullers, and drove to the boy’s home. Willie James had heard at the dime store that the white men were looking for him and he ran home.
According to his aunt, Mamie Perry, “He knew they was going to kill him so he ran home to his Mama. He was trying to tell my sister what had happened when just then the car with the men drove up.” Goff drew a pistol on Lula Howard and demanded that she turn her son over to them. Faced with this dilemma, Lula let the men take the boy. She ran after the car as it drove away. Lula Howard then hurried to the lumberyard where her husband worked.
Goff and the two men had driven to the lumber yard and at gun point had ordered her husband James to get into the car with them. By the time Lula arrived at the lumber yard the men had left with her son and husband. Lula would later report that the wife of the owner of the lumber yard, a white woman, would have testified as to the abduction of her husband but she was never called to do so.
The car was driven out of town to the Suwannee River along a bluff in Sulpher Springs. Goff would later admit to the sheriff that he tied Willie James’ hands and feet.
When they arrived on the high bank of the river, Goff made the boy and his father get out of the car. Acting as jury and judge, Goff asked Willie James if he understood the penalty of his crime. “Yes, sir,” he answered, weeping. Goff then asked James Howard if he had anything to say to his son. Powerless to intervene in his son’s fate, James Howard offered his son some words of comfort in what he now knew were his son’s last moments of life: “Willie, I cannot do anything for you now. I’m glad I have belonged to the Church and prayed for you.” Willie James’ final request of his father was that he take his wallet, which Howard did.
Goff then placed a gun to the boy’s head and told him to jump or take what was in the gun. Willie James jumped into the river and drowned.
The men then drove the father back to his place of employment where, after watching his son murdered, James Howard finished his shift. According to Mamie Perry, “When James Howard went home that night, all that he would tell his wife was that Willie James was not coming home. It was a few days before my sister found out what had happened.”
Tom Henry, the Sheriff of Suwannee County got a written statement from the three white men giving their version of what had taken place. They told the sheriff that they had picked up Willie James and taken him to his father so that his father could whip him about the letter. They said that when they got to the river, Willie James refused to be whipped by his father and that in his struggle to get away, he fell into the river and drowned himself. They said they tried to save the boy while the father stood by and did nothing.
Even if Sheriff Henry chose to believe the white men’s story that Willie James had drowned himself, why did he not arrest the men for kidnapping? They admitted that they took the boy from his home. Even in Suwannee County in 1944 it was illegal to take a child by force from his mother. The white community accepted this story and as far as they were concerned the Howard boy died as a result of an accidental drowning. Willie James was abducted, murdered and buried all within twenty-four hours. He had no grave marker.
The Howard murder would never have become public but for the fact that a black man, Elbert C. Robinson, an attorney from Live Oak who was then living in Washington, D.C., was home for the holidays and heard of a black child being lynched. Two days after the murder he wrote to the NAACP in Washington, D.C. His letter led to the assignment of Thurgood Marshall to the case.
The letter dated January 4, 1944 stated:
“While visiting in Florida during the Christmas holidays one of the most gruesome cases imaginable was called to my attention. The people who relayed the facts in this case to me asked that I withhold their names, but implored me to get the facts in this case through to the NAACP as soon as possible. It appears that the conditions there are so tense, and the colored people (high and low) are so frightened that they are afraid to have their names identified with cases of this type.”
But the attorney gave the names of those to whom he had spoken, which included Willie James’ father, the black undertaker Ansel Brown, Reverend R. M. Lane of live Oak and Mr. McPherson, the principal of the black high school where Willie James attended. He ended by saying, “Please do not publicize these names. Attorney Robinson’s intervention led to letters from the National NAACP to Florida Governor Holland requesting an investigation of the killing. The governor appointed a special investigator, David Lanier, and told him to provide him with a quiet report.
Lanier interviewed the sheriff, the white men involved and James and Lula Howard gave this account to the special investigator:
On January 2, 1944, my husband, James, had gone off to work for his employer, Bond-Howell Lumber Company; his boss was Mr. R. L. Howell. Later that morning, an automobile which contained three white men drove up to my house. The three men got out of the car; two of them stood at the gate of the house. The name of one of these men was Mr. Mac McCulla. The other man’s name is unknown to me. The third man was Mr. Phil Goff. The following conversation took place:
Question: Where is James?”
Answer: He has gone to work.
Question: Where is he working?
Answer: At the Bond-Howell Lumber Company.
Question: Where is Willie James?
Answer: He is out in the back.
Just then Willie came into the house and Mr. Goff grabbed hold of him and told him to come along. I tried to pull him away and also kept pleading and asking what Willie had done. By this time, Mr. Goff had pulled a revolver out from somewhere on his person and leveled it at me. He dragged Willie out to the car, got in with the other white men, and drove off in the direction of Live Oak. I ran after the car, which got away from me.
In his report to the governor, David Lanier, the special investigator, wrote that the white men were guilty of murder if they are guilty of anything. On February 14, 1944, Governor Holland wrote to Thurgood Marshall and attached a copy of Lanier’s report. The governor warned Marshall of the “particular difficulties involved where there will be testimony of three white men and probably the girl against the testimony of one negro man.”
The State Attorney did bring the Howard killing before a Suwannee County grand jury at the Suwannee Courthouse on May 4, 1944 in Live Oak. The only witness called was James Howard who by then had moved to Orlando. The grand jury asked him only two questions. How old was the boy? And, did he deliver the letter to Cynthia Goff in person? There were no questions about what happened at the river. They did not call Lula Howard who could have testified as to the abductions of her son and husband and she may have had corroboration from the wife of the lumber yard-owner. Lanier, the special investigator was not called either. After answering the two questions from the grand jury, James Howard was dismissed. He never heard anything from the grand jury.
Harry T. Moore, who was head of the state NAACP, was a classmate of Lula Howard’s. They both grew up in a settlement outside of Live Oak called Houston. Moore tried to help bring justice for Willie James. He worked with Marshall to try to bring in federal involvement. Despite all the arguments advanced by Marshall and Harry T. Moore, the state ultimately did nothing about the lynching.
Willie James’ parents moved away almost immediately after the lynching, settling in Orlando. James Howard died a few years later. Lula Howard died in 2004. According to her sister, Mamie, who I interviewed in Orlando in 2006, “Her heart was broken all of her life after that. Willie James was her only child.”
Decades later some whites in Live Oak still believe in the drowning myth. When interviewed on October 19, 2006 about the lynching, Susan K. Lamb the editor of The Suwannee Democrat, the town’s newspaper, responded, “It was not a lynching. It was a drowning.” She said the boy was running away and drowned in the river. When I asked how she thought the boy could run with his hands and feet tied, she responded, “Isn’t that interesting?”
Willie James Howard was buried in the Eastside Cemetery in Live Oak. For over sixty years, his grave was unmarked. Douglas Udell, was a Suwannee County commissioner in 2006. He is a mortician. Udell purchased the funeral home and records from Ansel Brown who had buried Willie James.
In 2005 Commissioner Udell paid to have a grave marker placed on the boy’s grave. He also organized a church service for Willie James since none was held at the time of his death.
Udell is evidence of the current state of black political influence in what had been one of the most conservative counties in Florida. He was elected to be Chairman of the Suwannee County Commission in November of 2007 in a district that has more white than black voters.
With Suwannee County Sheriff Tony Cameron in 2006. He was one of only two or three whites who attended the memorial service for Willie James. He told me, “I thought I should be there.” Sheriff Cameron was extremely helpful in my research. He called Cynthia’s best friend from his office for me. The woman, who did not wish to be identified, said Cynthia Goff no longer lives in Live Oak but visits occasionally. According to the woman Cynthia was distraught over what happened to Willie James. “She did not intend for that to happen. I think it stayed with her all of her life.” She said that Cynthia never married and worked in downtown stores like the Van Priest Dime Store all of her life.
Sheriff Cameron was very popular among Suwannee County blacks. He was the most powerful individual in the county but almost never wore a gun. When I was researching this touchy issue in his county he assured me that I could reach him quickly and personally if I needed to do so. Unlike in some other rural Florida counties where I have done research on lynching, I never worried about anything in Suwannee County.