One hundred years ago this week, Bud Johnson — a 36-year-old black U.S. Army veteran who served in the first World War — was tied to a stake by white Santa Rosa County residents and burned to death in one of the most brutal lynchings in Florida history.
The United States was marred by racial violence in what would later be called the “Red Summer” of 1919. Anti-black riots occurred in cities across the country, and nine black soldiers or ex-soldiers, including Johnson, were lynched.
But there is no historic marker at the spot where Johnson was burned. If his loved ones even managed to erect a headstone for him, it’s been lost to time. For the most part, Johnson’s memory lives on only in scraps of paper, like his U.S. Army records and the newspaper reports which chronicled his demise in morbid detail.
Johnson wasn’t from the area. A native of Alabama, the only reason he was even in Santa Rosa County in March of 1919 was to bury his father. On March 12, with his business concluded, Johnson boarded the steamer Helmar in Milton to begin his journey home.
He never made it.
When the steamer stopped in Pensacola, Escambia County Sheriff James C. Van Pelt and Captain E. E. Harper of the Pensacola police boarded the vessel, dragged Johnson ashore, and arrested him on charges of criminal assault.
The arrest was prompted by what the Milton Gazette called “one of the most dastardly crimes that has been committed in the history of Santa Rosa County.” Earlier the same day, a white Pace woman — whom the Gazette called “well known and highly respectable” — had reported that she’d been beaten by a black man as she returned home from shopping. News of the assault whipped the white residents of Santa Rosa County into a frenzy. Shops closed. Men formed posses to search for the “negro fiend.”
As with many Jim Crow-era lynchings, some of the details are lost to history. We don’t know why Johnson was targeted. Authorities argued that he matched the victim’s description of her assailant. Others suggested that there never was an attack, alleging that the woman had been prompted to make a false report by white landowners who sought revenge against Johnson for refusing to surrender a family farm to pay his father’s debts.
In any case, Johnson was taken to the Escambia County Jail — the same jail from which mobs had seized Leander Shaw and David Alexander in 1908 and 1909, respectively, and lynched them in Plaza Ferdinand VII. Supposedly out of fear that Johnson could meet the same fate, Florida Governor Sidney Catts ordered local authorities to transport Johnson out of the city to Jacksonville, Florida, for safe keeping.
The next day, Santa Rosa County Sheriff John Harvell took custody of Johnson and headed north. Rather than travel through Santa Rosa County, Harvell decided to take Johnson to Montgomery, Alabama, where they would board a train for Jacksonville.
Predictably, Harvell and Johnson were “ambushed” near Castleberry, Ala., where a heavily armed mob seized Johnson and took him back to Santa Rosa County.
The Gazette described Johnson’s fate:
“The conclusion of the story is found in the fact that the charred remains of the burned negro was found by passerbys near the scene of Wednesday’s crime and that an abundant supply of lightwood and a strong smell of kerosene would indicated that care had been taken that the job was quickly and thoroughly done.”Milton Gazette
Accounts of the lynching published in local papers were characterized by the hopelessly biased and viciously racist language which pervaded many Southern newspapers of the era. The Gazette described Johnson’s murderers as “sober-minded men, determined to protect the sanctity of the home and American Womanhood” who “had meted out stern justice to a beast in human form.”
News of the lynching was picked up by the Associated Press and accounts were published in Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Boston, and elsewhere around the country. The NAACP investigated and wrote the Florida Governor Catts asking for Johnson’s murderers to be held accountable.
“You ask me to see that these lynchers are brought to trial,” Gov. Catts wrote in his response to the NAACP. “This would be impossible to do as conditions are now in Florida, for when a negro brute, or a white man, ravishes a white woman in the State of Florida, there is no use having the people who see that this man meets death brought to trial, even if you could find who they are. The citizenship will not stand for it.”
In the end, none of those “sober-minded men” were ever held charged, much less convicted, for Johnson’s murder. In an interview with the NAACP, a black pastor later recounted some of the Army veteran’s last words: “Would that I had died in Germany rather than come back here and die by the hand of the people I was protecting.”