The Newberry Massacre by Dr. Marvin Dunn
Here the wind comes like a secret, hot and sudden,
Savored like a last breath, breaking boughs like necks,
You will hear echoes of denied prayers, then murmurs
Of the thousands who caught a glimpse of our strange fruit.
The summer rain washes away footprints and tire tracks,
Growing grass where cameras flashed and tears once fell.
You’ll see no marker, nothing but the Hammocks,
Whispering secrets beneath the glaring, stifling sun.
– Audra Eagle
The largest known mass lynchings in Florida history took place in Newberry in 1916. At least six, and possibly more, blacks died during the event. Newberry is located about 15 miles west of Gainesville on Highway 26. Upon entering the city from the east, the road passes through a heavily wooded clump of huge oak trees. The place is still called Lynch Hammock. It is a dark and shady place even on the hottest days of August. There are places in Lynch Hammock that are never touched by the sun. Newberry is now a bedroom community for Gainesville and contains many new residents. But those whose families have roots that run deep into Alachua County soil have probably heard stories about “the hanging tree”. Apparently, this tree in Lynch Hammock had been used many times over the years.
The earliest lynching that took place in Lynch Hammock was recorded in 1902. There are two versions of what occurred. The victims were Robert Scruggs and Manny Price who, according to local black historians Sherry Dupree and Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, were about twelve years old and were hung at Lynch Hammock for stealing the hearts out of watermelons while working in a white farmer’s field. The boys were leaving the stable to walk home when the farmer confronted them and accused them of opening two watermelons in the field and eating the heart of the fruit. The boys told the farmer they did not open or eat anything. Both historians said the boys were taken to Newberry and hung at Lynch Hammock; This would have made these two victims among the youngest blacks lynched in Florida.
According to Dupree, after the lynchings, the whites involved took portions of the hanging ropes, put them around their own necks, and wore the souvenirs for over a year. The boys’ families were ordered to leave the farmer’s land that very day. She said they did so, leaving behind their belongings and friends.[i] Newspaper reports, however, say that the victims were lynched in Alachua County and that they were men, not boys, and the reason for the lynchings was murder.[ii]
The events in 1916, leading to the massacre of six or more blacks began with the suspicion that a black man named Boisey Long and members of his family were involved in a hog-stealing ring that had left many farmers in the area afraid to raise hogs. The popular Constable of Newberry at that time was a white man named George Wynne. He was the younger brother of Fannie Wynne Dudley, the matriarch of the powerful Dudley family who were among the early white settlers in the area. Prior to the Civil War their plantation was worked by slaves brought to the area from South Carolina by Ben Dudley, the patriarch of the family. After the war the plantation continued to be operated as a very large farm.
On the evening of Thursday, August 17, 1916, Constable Wynne put one suspect in the alleged hog-stealing ring, Mills Dennis, in the Alachua County jail. He then drove back to Newberry to look for other family members and for evidence. At about 2 AM that night, Wynne, accompanied by two white men, Dr. L.G. Harris from Newberry and G.H. Blunt, arrived at the Dennis house where Boisey Long lived with the family who had helped raise him. The home was located in the Jonesville section.
He found Boisey Long in bed. Dr. Harris would later testify that as the officer attempted to search Long’s bed for weapons, Long pulled a gun and shot both men. Harris was shot in the wrist, but Wynne was hit in the abdomen and fatally wounded. Long fired on Wynne a second time; then dressed only in his nightclothes, he ran from the house. Wynne fired off a shot that hit Long but did not stop him. He stumbled but regained his footing and disappeared into the darkness. Wynne was taken by train to Jacksonville but by that Friday afternoon, he was dead. [iii]
The Newberry bloodletting soon followed. Wynne was raised on the Dudley family farm. His death both grieved and incensed many of the area’s whites, especially the Dudley family. Fannie Wynne Dudley, the constable’s sister, had raised him since the death of their mother in 1882. Their father had passed away a year later. George Wynne was admired by the Dudley children with whom he had grown up; they regarded him more like a brother than an uncle.[iv] The loss must have brought great grief to the Dudley farm and to Fannie Dudley in particular. Did she incite her sons to join, if not lead, the mob?
Fannie Wynne Dudley was no shrinking violet. She was the mother of eight daughters and four sons. She was “a very strong-minded woman, she spoke her mind and held her family and relatives to very strict moral standards. She once commented about her sister Mollie’s husband who drank too much, ‘Sometimes I feel if I was a man, I could whip the old Nick out of him.’”[v] It is quite probable that the Dudley men joined, if not led, the Newberry lynch mob. “Even though Alachua County also was affected by these times, the lynchings that took place in Newberry during the summer of 1916 were startling, particularly because they were the consequence of the murder of a close Dudley relative.” [vi]
A posse was organized to begin the manhunt for Boisey Long. Sheriff Perry G. Ramsey was in charge. The posse dissolved into a mob when it shot and killed Jim Dennis, a member of the family that was known to be close to Boisey Long. Members of the posse would later claim that Jim Dennis had resisted arrest. This was a common account given when a posse became a mob.[vii] Local blacks have a different version of what happened to Dennis. According to Ladis Ross, a local black man, his father, Albert Ross (a long-time resident), told the family that a carload of white men went to Jim Dennis’ house and picked him up. He said that the white men took Dennis out to a farm and told him to get out and open the gate and then they shot him. “They told his wife where he was and they went down and found him lying there dead.”[viii]
Several relatives and friends of Boisey Long were rounded up and placed in the Newberry Jail, allegedly for assisting Long in making his escape. It would be determined later that none of those arrested had assisted Long in any fashion. Those who were arrested were Bert and Mary Dennis, Stella Young, who was Boisey Long’s wife and two close friends of the Dennis family, Andrew McHenry and Josh Baskin.[ix] Throughout the reporting of the Newberry events, there was a steady flow of allegations in various media that had not as much as a whiff of proof that the victims had been bad people who deserved their fate. The arresting, and even lynching, of relatives or friends of alleged black criminals was a common occurrence. There was usually an effort to paint the collateral victims as having aided a dangerous Negro in some way, making them deserving of being lynched.
The Florida Times-Union reported what took place after the victims were seized by the posse:
The three men and three [sic] women were lodged in the Newberry Jail pending developments. Earlier this morning a mob gathered near Newberry, proceeded to the jail and took the three men and two of the women out and are alleged to have carried them to a cluster of huge oak trees on the Gainesville-Newberry road about a mile from Newberry and told them to make their peace with their Maker as they were not going to steal any more hogs or cause any further trouble in that section. After this, the negroes [sic] were all strung up to separate limbs in the oak grove where they were found by parties who passed the road early in the morning. The bodies were left hanging until 1:00 o’clock this afternoon and were viewed by numerous persons from Gainesville and all sections of Alachua County. The negroes [sic] who were hanged were Stella Young, Mary Dennis, Bert Dennis, Andrew McHenry and Josh Baskins. The latter was a Methodist preacher and is alleged to have been the leader of the gang of thieves. Jim Dennis was shot and killed by a posse of citizens Friday morning who, it is said, were attempting to arrest him. The negro . . . [sic] is said to have showed fight and no chances were taken with him. Boisey Long escaped after the shooting and is still at large. However, his capture is momentarily expected. Long was seen passing Stringfellow’s still early this morning by a negro [sic] woman who immediately telephoned to the officers. . . . Tonight the entire county from Millard Station, two miles west of Gainesville, to Newberry is being (illegible word) with armed men. Long is supposed to have stayed in hiding throughout the day in Dontog Hammock five miles west of this city. Another necktie party will certainly be held if Long is taken alive. Feeling is still running high in Newberry and vicinity, and it is probable that further trouble will occur in that section tonight. [x]
Apparently, all of the victims were hung from one giant oak tree, Newberry’s infamous hanging tree. In the same issue of the Florida Times-Union, the Associated Press reported, “Dispatchers from Newberry tonight said that the mob which lynched the five negroes [sic] was composed of about a hundred men and worked quietly and rapidly. After gaining entrance to the jail, they took their victims to a point about a mile from town and hanged all on one large oak tree. Not a shot was fired, the dispatchers said.”[xi]
Then the lurid display of the victims began, perhaps as a warning to others about stealing hogs and shooting white police officers. For whatever reason, many people were attracted to the spectacle. “The lynched bodies remained hanging on public display all Saturday morning and into the afternoon and hordes of people from the surrounding towns drove to the grounds for a viewing of the bodies. Throughout the day there was an almost continuous line of automobiles on the main road from Gainesville to Newberry. Only on late Saturday afternoon were the bodies cut down and given to relatives for burial.” [xii]
Panicked blacks began seeking protection from whites as the mob raged through the area. “With the murderer still at large, the posse became an uncontrollable mob that was determined to wreak vengeance on someone. Myrtle Dudley, then fifteen years old, recalls frightened African American families sought protection and comfort from Fannie Dudley at the Dudley Farm. Throughout the community other African Americans also sought and received protection from their white neighbors.”[xiii]
Boisey Long was captured two days following the attack on Wynne. He was turned in by Squire Long and his son (no relation to Boisey) when he appeared at their home asking for food. Squire Long made enemies in Jonesville by turning Boisey Long over to the police. “There are hard feelings even today between factions of Jonesville blacks going back to this. Most black people here just won’t talk about it.” [xiv]
Boisey Long was indicted on September 5, 1916. He was tried two days later. The jury selection took only an hour and fifteen minutes. The jurors ended up being all-white, of course. Boisey Long took the stand in his own defense. He testified that his pistol was on a chair behind the door with his shirt, and when he stooped to get his shirt, he had to pick up the pistol. As he did so, Wynne shot him, he said. He said that he then shot at both men before running from the house.[xv] Long’s trial took just two and one-half hours, and the jury required only seven minutes of deliberation. Long was found guilty. Six weeks following his conviction, Boisey Long was hung in the yard of the Alachua County Jail on Friday, October 27, 1916. [xvi]
Frank and Fannie Dudley had four sons, Frank, Harvey, Norman and Ralph. The youngest, Frank, was sixteen and eventually related some of the events of the massacre from a first-person perspective because he was present. It is unlikely that he was allowed to be on the scene alone; his brothers were likely present as well. The Dudleys were the aggrieved family in this situation. The southern social code of the era placed great value on the right of the family members of the victims of crimes of violence to exact revenge. Why would the Dudleys have been different?
Frank Dudley, told the Gainesville Sun that the community was stirred up about what had happened to Constable Wynne and that about fifteen hundred whites were going through the woods searching for Boisey Long. Frank Dudley did not admit to being a member of the mob, but it was clear that he was present during the actual killings. He told how, “one at a time, a black person was placed on the horse with the rope around the neck, and then the horse was slapped away and they was (sic) hanged.” Dudley said that even a state senator was present.[xvii].
The Dudleys were involved in the Newberry Massacre up to their nose hairs although they have been and continue to be, protected by decades of white silence in Alachua County. According to Hilliard-Nunn, some of the preparation for the lynching was done at the Dudley farm house. “Men were seen preparing hanging ropes in the kitchen. This was told to me by a white witness who declined to be identified.”[xviii]
No arrests were ever made for the murders of the six people although later accounts from eyewitnesses indicated that deputy sheriffs (without their badges), a state senator and some high school students were all present at the lynching. Indeed, according to one white man who was alive at the time, those responsible included “the very best people who lived in the neighborhood-law abiding citizens who wouldn’t hurt a kitten under different circumstances.”[xix]
I visited Lynch Hammock for the first time on a very hot day in August of 2007. I found it to be an eerie, if not haunting, place even in the daytime. This dark place today still contains huge live oaks but the infamous hanging tree has long been gone.
I interviewed several Newberry locals who remembered the tree. One of them, Ladis Ross, was born in the community in 1935. He told me that he could remember seeing the tree in Lynch Hammock as he was growing up, but that the tree has since been cut down. He said a freeze came through the area in 1947 and busted up the road [Highway 26]. “They came through the hammock with a new road and took the curve out and that tree is gone.” Freddie Warmack, another black man, was the mayor of Newberry in recent years. He told me that the tree stood on the southeast corner of the intersection of Highway 26 and Newberry Lane for years. He said the tree was a bad omen and that he was glad it was gone. According to him, they cut it down when they widened Highway 26.
I met Gwendolyn Hunt, a black funeral home director who bought a section of Lynch Hammock. Her home and her business are located on the property. Walking through her gardens in the summer of 2007, she told me, “They say the woods lit up like daylight when they hung Stella. They say it scared the white folks and they ran. Folks say this land is cursed. I never would have bought land here if I knew what happened, but you should come out here under a full moon. It looks like the sun is out.” [xx] The evening was coming on. Looking across the expanse of her lawn, down towards the clump of huge live oak trees on the far side of her property, I could almost see the ghosts.
About twenty years ago I found photographs of the victims of the Newberry lynchings in the Duval County Public Library in Jacksonville. I did not know when or where the photographs were taken. They showed several bodies stacked in a pile with nearly twenty white men and boys standing behind the heap, such as is done with trophies of deer or pigs shot on a hunt. The location of the scene, the date and the photographer were not indicated. I purchased the images and placed them among my collection of photographs from black Florida history. As I developed contacts in Alachua County, I met whites from the area who knew something about the events of 1916, and a lot about the Dudleys.
After a scrumptious Cracker lunch in Newberry at the home of Janis Owens, a white woman and friend of mine who is a writer and lives in the area, I pulled out the Newberry lynching images I had found in Jacksonville. My hostess immediately recognized four men from the Dudley family, standing over the corpses. The revelation prompted me to make a visit to the Dudley farm which is now a Florida state park; the farm has been restored to the heyday of its existence nearly a century ago. It was established as a reflection of Florida Cracker culture.
The farm had been a slave plantation until the end of the Civil War. Many blacks stayed on as farm hands after the war. The Dudley farm at one time was larger than the City of Newberry itself. Today the estate has been restored by the state of Florida to appear as it was decades ago and is in fact, a working farm. A park ranger identified for me the Dudley brothers in the lynching photograph. I offered a copy of the photo to the state however the state park service will not display the lynching photograph at the Dudley park
My visit to the Dudley Farm State Park seemed like a step back into the last century. It has been restored in the order of the restorations at Williamsburg, Virginia, which depict American colonial life. The Dudley farm has been preserved so future generations can actually see what a working Florida Cracker farm was like at the turn of the century. There were no other visitors there while I visited. I walked over the perfectly kept grounds passing grazing cattle and a working tobacco barn and walked up the front steps into the house.
Passing through the front room and into the kitchen, I was stopped in my tracks: ghosts in the kitchen of the Dudley farmhouse? I got the sense that evil had been done in this space. Was Hilliard-Nunn right about the ropes being prepared here? I settled into a rocking chair on the back porch. It was a spring-like day with dappled sunlight moving across the bucolic scene. But the ghosts were in the kitchen behind me. A bad feeling about the place came over me, and yet, my surroundings were so very much like my Grandmother Cora’s Glenwood home where I lived in 1945.
Several months later I returned to the farm. I wanted to get confirmation that the men in the photograph were Dudleys. I covered the bottom half of the photograph so that the bodies could not be seen but the faces of the men and boys standing over the corpses were visible. I asked a park ranger if he or any other park ranger could identify the men in the photograph. A senior park ranger was brought to me. I showed him the top of the image and he instantly said, “Oh, That’s Frank Dudley there. There’s Norman and Ralph too.” [xxi] He appeared to be deflated when I uncovered the bottom of the photograph. In 2013 a reporter from the Miami Herald asked a state park official if the park would display the lynching photograph to visitors as a part of its historical display. According to the reporter, the officials responded that they would do so only if visitors requested to see it.[xxii]