As the year concludes and Christmas draws near, individuals will send special messages to loved ones, relatives and colleagues.
Such an innocuous act, however, spelled the doom of 15-year-old Willie James Howard, who was kidnapped by three white male adults and lynched by drowning. Howard was good-looking, popular, a great singer and known for his good nature. Cynthia Goff, the white girl he worked with after school at Van Priest’s was also a 10th grader. They both attended segregated schools just a few hundred yards apart.
Howard worked at the local dime store, he was also a 10th grader at Live Oak in Florida. Innocently enough, Howard gave cards to all his co-workers, including 15-year-old Goff in December 1943, but it would prove to be a disastrous move when he signed Cynthia’s card “with L.”
When Howard became aware that Goff was upset about receiving the card, he delivered a second note on New Year’s Day anxious with an explanation: “I know you don’t think much of our kind but we don’t hate you all. We want to be your friends but you won’t let us… I wish this was [a] northern state. I guess you call me fresh. Write an[d] tell me what you think of me good or bad… I love your name. I love your voice, for a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice.”
Goff rather than discarding the cards quietly if she wasn’t interested rather opted to show the note to her father. With Howard stating that his kind wanted to be friendly with her kind, it’s safe to say the racial dynamics was not lost on both James and Cynthia Goff. It is why Cynthia ought to have known that choosing to invite his father to face a hapless lad in love was sure to have disastrous consequences.
Rather than seeing the act as a show of affection, Cynthia’s father, A. Phillip Goff who was a former state legislator on January 2, called on two white men S.B. McCullers and Reg H. Scott and together drove up to Willie James Howard’s house and kidnapped the boy, pointing a revolver to his mother, Lula’s face to warn her to back off.
The three white men with their young captive drove to the lumber company Willie’s father worked at and retrieved James Howard forcing him into the car. Goff and his friends drove Howard and his father to the banks of the Suwannee River.
It is here that these three men unleashed such cruelty on a poor teen that even in 1940s America exposed their macabre mind.
Goff and his companions tied Willie’s hands and feet and forced him to stand at the edge of the water. Then the white men gave Willie a “choice”—be shot to death, or jump into the river. Willie, with his hands and feet bound, jumped into the cold waters of the Suwannee and drowned while his helpless father was compelled to watch.
The town’s Black undertaker was told by the sheriff to retrieve Howard’s body from the river. The body was immediately buried in an unmarked grave at the “coloreds only” Eastside Cemetery. Goff gave a statement to the sheriff denying he and his two friends had murdered the Black youth.
Fearing for their lives, James and Lula Howard and their family fled from Live Oak and moved to Orlando a few days later.
An attorney visiting Live Oak at the time heard about the lynching and brought it to the attention of the NAACP. The NAACP demanded that Florida Governor Spessard Holland open a full investigation.
Phillip Goff while admitting he and his friends had taken Willie James and his father to the banks of the river and tied up the youth’s feet, claimed they wanted the father to whip his son “for his misdeed,” and that boy jumped into the river to avoid a whipping, in effect claiming Howard had killed himself.
Unsurprisingly, the grand jury did not return any indictments against Goff and his accomplices. The U.S. Justice Department refused to intervene. No one was ever punished for the lynching of 15-year-old Willie James Howard.
And for half a century Howard lay in an unmarked grave at the once ”coloreds-only” Eastside Cemetery until Douglas Udell, a funeral director, researching the records of a black undertaker whose space he was renting found the log of Willie James’ death, with the notation ”lynched” and the initials of the three men accused.
Further probing revealed Willie’s full story and with that Udell, a Suwannee County commissioner, bought a headstone for $250 and organized a memorial service. On Jan. 2, 2005, exactly 61 years after Howard’s death, a service was held at Springfield Baptist Church, where the family had worshiped. The congregation prayed and sang I’ll Fly Away. A typical Live Oak funeral draws about 125 people. Two hundred came to say goodbye to Willie James. Raw emotions showed and those who knew him talked about him according to Udell ”..like he had died yesterday.”
The murder of 15-year-old Howard took place 11 years before the torture and lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Howard was lynched by white men outraged at a Black youth writing a Christmas card to a white girl. Emmett was lynched by white men outraged at a Black youth whistling at a white woman. The mindset pushed by Eugenics advocates then and subtly now is that the white people were superior to Blacks.
It makes you wonder when white supremacist say ‘Make America Great Again’ if they mean back to an era when whites were a law onto themselves, killing without punitive consequence.