Individuals will send unique notes to loved ones, family, and coworkers as the year draw to a close and Christmas approaches.
Willie James Howard, a 15-year-old who was kidnapped by three white male adults and drowned, died as a result of such a seemingly benign act. Willie Howard was attractive, well-liked, a talented singer, and well-known for his pleasant demeanor. Cynthia Goff, a white female with whom he worked at Van Priest’s after school, was also a tenth grader. They went to segregated schools that were only a few hundred yards apart.
Howard was a 10th grader at Live Oak in Florida and worked at the neighborhood dime store. Howard gave cards to all of his coworkers in December 1943, including 15-year-old Goff, but it would prove to be a fatal move when he signed Cynthia’s card “with L.”
When Howard realized Goff was upset over getting the card, he sent a second note on New Year’s Day, explaining: “I know you don’t think much of our kind, but we don’t all detest you.” We want to be friends with you, but you won’t let us… I wish this was a state in the north. I guess you’d describe me as “fresh.” Send me an email and tell me what you think of me, good or bad… I really like your name. I adore your voice, and you are my first pick for a S.H. [sweetheart].”
Instead of silently discarding the cards if she wasn’t interested, Goff chose to show her father the note. It’s reasonable to say that the racial dynamics were not lost on James and Cynthia Goff, as Howard stated that his kind wanted to be friendly with her species. It’s why Cynthia should’ve known that inviting his father to meet a foolish lad in love would have disastrous effects.
On January 2, Cynthia’s father, A. Phillip Goff, a former state politician, enlisted the help of two white men, S.B. McCullers and Reg H. Scott, who drove up to Willie James Howard’s house and kidnapped the boy, waving a handgun in his mother’s face to warn her to back off.
The three white men, along with their little victim, drove to Willie’s father’s logging company and dragged James Howard into the car. Howard and his father were driven to the Suwannee River by Goff and his friends.
This is where these three men unleashed such cruelty on a poor youngster that their morbid mind was exposed even in 1940s America.
Willie’s hands and feet were bound, and he was made to stand at the edge of the water by Goff and his accomplices. The white guys then presented Willie with a “choice”: be shot or leap into the river. Willie plunged into the chilly waters of the Suwannee with his hands and feet shackled, drowning in front of his hapless father.
The sheriff instructed the town’s Black undertaker to fetch Howard’s body from the river. The deceased was quickly buried in an unmarked grave at the Eastside Cemetery’s “coloreds only” section. Goff provided the sheriff a statement in which he denied that he and his two pals had murdered the Black teen.
James and Lula Howard and their family departed Live Oak, Florida, fearing for their life, and went to Orlando a few days later.
The lynching was brought to the attention of the NAACP by an attorney who was visiting Live Oak at the time. Florida Governor Spessard Holland was ordered by the NAACP to launch a complete investigation.
While admitting that he and his friends had taken Willie James and his father to the river’s edge and tied up the youth’s feet, Phillip Goff claimed that they wanted the father to whip his son “for his misdeed,” and that the boy jumped into the river to avoid the whipping, effectively claiming Howard had committed suicide.
The grand jury, predictably, did not issue any indictments against Goff and his associates. The Justice Department of the United States declined to intervene. Willie James Howard, a 15-year-old boy, was lynched and no one was ever prosecuted.
And Howard lay in an unmarked grave at the once “coloreds-only” Eastside Cemetery for half a century until Douglas Udell, a funeral director, discovered the log of Willie James’ death, with the notation “lynched” and the initials of the three men accused, while researching the records of a black undertaker whose space he was renting.
Further investigation uncovered Willie’s complete narrative, prompting Udell, a Suwannee County commissioner, to purchase a $250 headstone and prepare a memorial service. A memorial service was held at Springfield Baptist Church, where Howard’s family had worshipped, on Jan. 2, 2005, exactly 61 years after his death. I’ll Fly Away was sung by the assembly while they prayed. Approximately 125 people attend an average Live Oak funeral. Willie James’ farewell was attended by 200 people. Raw emotions were displayed, and people who knew him talked about him “as if he had died yesterday,” according to Udell.
Howard was murdered at the age of 15, 11 years before Emmett Till was tortured and lynched at the age of 14. Howard was lynched by white males who were enraged that a Black teenager had written a Christmas card to a white girl. White guys were upset by a Black kid whistling at a white woman and lynched Emmett. Eugenics supporters preached the idea that white people were superior to black people back then, and they still do so covertly now.
When white supremacists scream ‘Make America Great Again,’ you have to question if they mean a return to a time when whites were a law unto themselves, killing without consequence.