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.
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.
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.