By ROCCO MAGLIO
Hernando County has had prejudice. Most places have had citizens exhibit prejudice in one way or another. There were children in Brooksville that were forbidden from hanging out with Masaryktown children who were of Czechoslovakia background. There was segregation of schools and racial issues in the community.
There were many people who were not prejudiced. People who saw beyond a person’s physical attributes and origin. Some people were prejudiced to some, but not others.
Recently many references have been made in various mediums to Hernando County having the third most lynchings of any county in the United States by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). This is usually cited when attempting to establish that Hernando County is racist toward African Americans.
First, it is important to establish what lynching means. A ‘lynching’ is a killing without a trial. The method of killing is not defined. Although the word ‘lynching’ to many is synonymous with ‘hanging,’ some of the more famous lynchings were carried out with guns.
From 1880 to 1940 the EJI states that there were 11 “racial terror lynchings” in Hernando. To put that in perspective, on March 14, 1891, in New Orleans 11 Italian Americans were killed in a single lynching. The New Orleans Italian lynching was important locally because as a result of the prejudice in New Orleans, a large number of Southern Italians fled New Orleans and moved to Ybor City and points north. In 1900, one of Hernando County’s schools was named Sicily most likely for the community it served.
The section where Hernando County finished third was “Counties With the Highest Rates of Lynching (Per 100,000 Residents) in Southern States, from 1880 to 1940.” Hernando County had 4.14 lynchings per year per 100,000 residents from 1880 to 1940. In 1890 Hernando County had 2,476 residents.
The period after the Civil War was a very trying time for Hernando County. There were feuds going on, many murders went unsolved, but they were often avenged.
Historian Roger Landers chronicles murders and lawlessness in Hernando from 1877 to 1931 in his article, The “Recent Unpleasantness” in Hernando County, Florida: Reconstruction, Redemption, Retrenchment, and Its Legacy. Landers begins the article with the murder of Arthur St. Clair in 1877. St. Clair was a former slave and politician. Landers ends with the 1931 murder of a white city attorney looking into illegal moonshining.
From another Landers article on the burning of the courthouse which is believed to have been an attempt to derail the investigation into Arthur St. Clair’s murder. Landers writes “Finally, in June 1879, the grand jury met and went on the record deploring the state of affairs in Hernando. Jurors lamented the “list of morality (sic) and the war against dignity” and the “two score (40 murders) in the last 14 years — 11 … in the last two years.” Many went unsolved, including the slayings of James M. Rhodes, a former school superintendent, and Center, the county judge.”
During this period the Sunland Tribune reported on February 5, 1879, that “the night shooters have been quiet for [a] few weeks. . . . [W]e hope it continues.” During this time there was a group of vigilantes known as the “regulators” that took law enforcement into their own hands.
These murders claimed men of all statuses even prominent local officials. There were questions about the involvement of some of the sheriffs in the lawlessness. Although the veracity of this is difficult to determine because the claims usually came from the sheriff’s political opponents.