By Jose Diaz
The lynching of Henry Patterson in May of 1924 is the worst kept secret in LaBelle.
Brandon Jett, a professor of history at FSW’s Hendry-Glades Curtis Center, has tried to get the city to memorialize the lynching since he moved to LaBelle last June.
“There’s not even a headstone for this guy,” said Jett. “It seems like older folks know [about the lynching], while younger people don’t really know. It seems like its common knowledge with the people who’ve been here the longest.”
Henry Patterson, a 22-year-old black laborer, was chased, tortured, and lynched by a drunken mob after he came to the back door of a white couple’s home asking for water, according to historical news reports.
The woman in the house, startled by Patterson’s approach, screamed hysterically and ran the other way, causing Patterson to run away as well.
“Rumors start[ed] circulating around the town that there had been an assault and they’re searching for this guy,” said Jett. “These tensions are building up, and people are drinking and they’re around town looking for this guy to kill.”
He was caught by the marshall, who then turned him over to the mob.
“[The woman] said nothing happened. It was pretty clear right after he was killed that he didn’t do anything,” Jett said.
“Most places, there’s a rape accusation, or a murder; like ‘this black guy raped this person so we lynched him, and that is usually [the] reservation against doing anything memorializing,” he continued.
“Why would you memorialize this person who was accused of murder or rape? No one in LaBelle thinks this guy did anything, so there’s even added motivation.”
Jett has made the project part of his African American Studies class at the Hendry center.
“We’re doing cool stuff, with this, out in LaBelle,” he said. “The main thrust of the semester is primary source research. They had to read articles from the Fort Myers News-Press about the lynching and the trials, and then they all had to conduct interviews themselves with someone in town who knows about it.”
Through the culmination of research and interviews, his students are expected to make the case for memorializing the lynching in a final essay, due at the end of the semester.
“To see something like that happen in our home town makes it real,” said Robert Garza, one of Jett’s African American studies students in LaBelle. “A lot of us here never heard of the lynching before this class. He was an innocent man.”
His students agree that the lynching should be remembered.
“[It will] teach people not to make the same mistakes as their ancestor’s back then,” said Kayla Drummond, a dual-enrolled student in Jett’s class.
David Gonzalez, another student, said “I had more concern about [the lynching] after I heard about it.”
Jett’s short term goal for his class project is to build a website cataloging the oral history of the lynching.
He wants to post interviews, essays, articles, and other multimedia works involving the lynching to sustain a longer project that future classes can work on.
“The broader project is to have them find some sources, find more people that we can go back to interview, to get them a sense of ‘alright what do people know around here’ so then if we want to do interviews next semester we know who to talk to,” Jett said.
He wants to partner with the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to providing legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes.
EJI opened a museum in Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in April 2018. It is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, and their ancestors.
Counties can participate in the museum’s project by providing names and details of past lynchings to the Memorial. In return, the museum will create two monolith structures, with the names of victims and the county where it happened. One monolith goes to the county, and one goes to the museum.
“I’d like to do something a little more proactive and constructive; something that constantly engages people,” said Jett.
“Here’s who Henry Patterson was, here’s what happened to him. Using his name to engage in conversation with each other and think critically about issues instead of just resorting to these knee jerk reactions that can end in violence.”