Dedicating Tallahassee’s Lynching Memorial

Remarks delivered by Dr. Dan Leshem (our ED) at the dedication ceremony of the Tallahassee Community Remembrance Project’s Lynching Memorial on July 17, 2021


I would like to thank the organizers of the Tallahassee Community Remembrance Project whose work started years ago and has brought us to this moment and this monument. My name is Dan Leshem and before becoming director of Hillel at FSU, which promotes Jewish life on campus, I was a scholar and teacher of the Holocaust. My role here today is to dedicate this memorial site. I do so as a white-passing, cis-gendered Jewish man becoming aware of my own place within the structures of power and privilege that perpetuate our unequal society. I am humbled and overwhelmed by this task.


I think back to the perpetual doubts I felt while studying the Holocaust — an event that decimated my family yet somehow also drew me close to my grandmother who was a survivor. She was my first teacher about the Holocaust and about life: she taught me about resilience in the face of trauma, and about the dangers of forgetting. Yet still I would ask myself periodically: “why do I force myself to confront humanity’s deepest evils by imagining–by putting myself in the place of, by remembering–the pain and suffering of its victims? And, what good am I doing by sharing the victims’ pain with others?” I realized that these traumatic stories teach us two invaluable lessons: (1) the capacity inherent in all of us to do great harm to others, and (2) the human capacity to persevere, to carry on, and to rebuild. Both the Nazis and their victims were human beings–no different from you and me–who inhabited the extremes of what it is to be a human being: unimaginable cruelty, and indescribable strength.

Tallahassee Lynching Memorial

This memorial we dedicate today tells another chapter in the same eternal story. The hatred of one group by another; defined by color and race; manifested as violence and terror; ultimately forgotten and denied. It is our role now to state clearly for all who are present to hear and remember that within a stone’s throw of the site where we now stand, four human beings were taken and murdered by a white mob. These men were lynched in Leon County as part of an organized campaign of racial terror: they were Pierce Taylor (1897), Mick Morris (1909), Richard Hawkins and Ernest Ponder (1937). This monument to their memory, their lives, and their murders tells us a great deal about what we inherit as residents of Leon County, as residents of Florida where at least 311 other lynchings were perpetrated, and indeed as Americans, where untold thousands of other people of color were lynched during the Jim Crow era.


The stories of these victims by-and-large have not been recorded; and we cannot hear their voices or understand what they went through just by being here today. Instead, we must apply what we know about human experience to the circumstances of their deaths: dragged out of small cells with the open collaboration or passive resistance of their jailors, often at night, often by masked men holding torches and weapons, knowing that they were likely about to die, having known that this might occur but having no idea what to expect. And we must imagine the society and community from which they were pulled, who were perhaps the truest audience for these homicides, since the murderers intended the spectacle of their violence to cause terror, to induce panic and acquiescence. A note found next to the bodies of Hawkins and Ponder, two teenagers read: “This is the beginning, who is next.” We also need to imagine the wider circle of perpetrators and accomplices: white audiences who came out to witness the killings, to find souvenirs, and to take pictures with the corpses.

Dr. Leshem speaking at dediation ceremony

The Hebrew Bible commands us to remember over 200 times, but why should we continue to relive and remember the most horrible things that have been done to us? Tonight begins the Jewish commemoration of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem with a traditional meal of bread and eggs dipped in ashes followed tomorrow with a day of fasting and mourning. Why?


I offer the following tentative suggestions to my friends and family of color: (1) because that past makes us who we are today (2) it reminds us that the injustices of the past have not all been rectified, and (3) remembering pain gives us empathy for the suffering and needs of others.


I invite us to make a new memorial tradition: Let’s all meet here, at this site next year and every year so that we never forget and never fail in our calling to remember all those who have been victimized by our country’s system of racial terror and oppression, and to change ourselves and our society one memory, one action at a time.


Thank you so much for lending your attention, passion, and, most importantly, your memory.



Wishes For Our 2021 Grads

Blessing for our Grads on Parashat Shemini

Tonight’s Parsha is Shemini, which means eighth in Hebrew. In this text the eight refers to the eighth day of building and using the Mishkan, the mobile tabernacle that the Jews built while they wandered in the desert. For seven days Moses built the tabernacle and at the end of each day, he folded it up and put it away, but the eighth day was the first day that mishkan stayed built, the first day that Aaron, the High Priest, took over the priestly duties, and the first day that fire from the heavens came down to consume the burnt offerings Aaron prepared.

The rabbis interpret the importance of the 8th day as the day of the miracle [(Talmud, Erchin 13b) that “the lyre of Moshiach has eight strings.”]. For seven days Gd made nature and order of the world, for seven days Moses built the mishkan, but on the seventh day something different happened. And that different thing, that interruption of what had gone on before was the entry of the divine into the affairs of mortal men, women and children.

And similarly, you have spent 3, 4 or 5 years of college, or 16 years if you count grades 1-12, or 19 years if you go all the way back to preschool and daycare. This all represents the first 7 days of our parsha, the expected, the slow and steady work of preparing yourself, your mind, your being for the miraculous. Preparing yourselves for the possibility of something completely different, surprising, perhaps even disruptive.

At FSU you have chosen your classes with care. You paid special attention to which clubs, sororities or fraternities you would give your time. Which social justice projects resonated with you. Which extracurricular learning opportunities leapt out at you. Some of these you took advantage of, and some you let go by, saving that particular opportunity or learning for the future, for another time.

You have chosen your friends with care, your spring breaks, you took some opportunities to go home and some you passed up on. And of course, your experience was radically changed by a deadly and terrifying virus that grips the whole world in a panic we have yet to escape from.

These, my friends, were the first seven days, the time of setting the groundwork, preparing for the completely unknown, the unexpected, the “what’s next.” Coincidentally, there are now precisely 8 days until the first FSU graduation ceremony, and– like the 10 Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that Jews traditionally devote to reflecting on the past year and committing themselves to growth in the next year– I invite you all to treat the next 7 days as a moment of Havdalah. A time to draw a distinction between what has happened in your life so far, and to create a space, an opening for the next phase of your life to pour in, like a blessing. Each havdalah, each distinction and separation we make in our lives, allows us to become something new, we are no longer tied to who we were and what we wanted for the last 22 years. That was preparation. When we walk across the stage and accept our diploma, we will do so as new people, for whom the only limit is our openness to change.

Over the next week, find a few minutes to ask yourself not “what job do I want to have next month” but what person do I want to be when I look back five or ten years from now? What and who will I have allowed into my life. What causes will I stand up for, what friends, what strangers? Who will I care about and who will I allow to care for me? We are not limited to who we were in the past but we are informed by that person, so how will we improve the world in ways that younger version of ourselves never got to enjoy? How will we give back to our parents, friends, our communities? How do we make sure that paths we walked on are still clear and stable and sustaining for those who come after us?

You are our leaders now. We are your friends. We are your community, colleagues, well-wishers, cheerleaders, family. We will only be happy if you succeed and grow in ways we never did and reach heights we barely glimpsed. As you needed us in the past, we need you in the future. Do the work, prepare the path, but don’t forget to leave space for the divine interruption.

Mazal tov! We are so proud and can’t wait to see what you do next.