Lynching That Didn't Happen

By Susan D. Brandenburg
May, 2006

The Prevented Lynching of Benjamin Reed in Jacksonville, Florida in July, 1892

It was a hotter than usual 4th of July on the streets of Jacksonville in the year 1892.  In fact, the city was dangerously close to igniting into a racial inferno.  The soupy summer air was ripe for lynching and if not for the organized resistance of the black population and the quick action of Sheriff Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Jacksonville might easily have descended into an explosion of blood-red 4th of July fireworks. 

In her book, Lethal Punishment (Rutgers University Press, 2006), Margaret Vandiver, Ph.D., Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Memphis, describes in detail the events surrounding the prevented lynching of Benjamin Reed in Jacksonville, Florida on July 4th, 1892.

It was at about 1 p.m. on Independence Day that a dispute arose between black teamster Benjamin Reed and white shipping clerk Frank Burrows, co-workers at the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association on West Bay Street.  When Burrows, a man in his mid-20’s, harshly reprimanded Reed, 35, for a late delivery of beer kegs which delayed closing the plant for the 4th of July celebration, Reed was heard to respond several times, “Don’t treat me like a dog.”  Soon, according to witnesses, the two men were swinging heavy pieces of wood, called “standards” (used to prevent kegs from rolling out of delivery wagons) at each other.  Burrows took a lethal blow to the head that knocked him unconscious.  Reed was arrested and taken to the Jacksonville City Jail on Liberty Street.  Talk of lynching began even before Burrows was pronounced dead at 5:35 p.m. 

In Vandiver’s words, “The all-too common and predictable sequence of events – a mob gathering, an assault on the jail, law enforcement officers’ failure to defend the prisoner, a lynching – did not occur in this case.  Instead, hundreds of blacks gathered downtown to protect Reed.” 

The Florida Times-Union described the scene: 

Every approach to the jail was guarded by crowds of negroes armed to the very teeth.  The city was virtually under their control … Sentinels stood on every street corner, and when a white man would pass they would question him about where he was going, etc.  A whistle signal would then be passed on to the next corner and the pedestrian would be surrounded and followed.  If he went in the direction of the jail, the negroes would close in upon him and he would soon find himself covered by fifty or more cocked revolvers.  He would be interrogated again and after being treated to abusive language would then be ordered to go back.

Rumors circulated that a lynch mob was on its way from Mayport, Burrows’ home town, and, after being turned away from his own jail by the black mob, Sheriff Broward telegraphed Governor Francis Fleming at 8:30 p.m. to request assistance from the Florida militia.  In his initial telegram, Broward did not mention the mob at the jail, but simply requested assistance in preventing a lynching.  Major General David Lang, Adjutant General of the state, immediately called up a militia company located in Jacksonville.

During the ensuing three days, the mob of angry armed African Americans surrounding the jail grew to nearly 1,000 and an equal number of angry whites began pouring in from throughout Duval County and from as far away as North Georgia.  Broward’s telegrams to the governor became increasingly desperate, demanding that more militia be dispatched to quell the growing unrest.  Finally, on July 7th, with the help of a Gatling Gun aimed at the mob around the jail, a timely downpour of rain, and a great show of military uniforms in a parade down Bay Street, both the black and white crowds were finally disbursed without bloodshed. 

“Had Frank Burrows been the one left standing on July 4th, the coroner’s report would almost certainly have read ‘self-defense’ in the death of Benjamin Reed,’” said Vandiver, speaking in May at a Yulee Friends of the Library and Historic Council’s Local History Month program.   “Given the time, place and circumstances, the amazing thing about this case is that no one but Burrows died.”

Appearing on a panel with Vandiver at the May ___ event were Jacksonville Architect Bob Broward (a descendant of the Sheriff – and later Florida’s 19th Governor - Napoleon Bonaparte Broward) and Stetson Kennedy, author of The Klan Unmasked, Jim Crow Guide, Southern Exposure, and several other books relating to the history of human rights in the South.  

The Yulee Friends of the Library program was organized by Fernandina Beach architect and historian, Bill Brainard, who assisted Vandiver in the extensive research that produced her book.  In fact, Brainard actually alerted her to the prevented lynching in 1892 after reading about it in a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward.   Friends and fellow researchers since they met decades ago at Florida State University, Brainard and Vandiver devoted several days to researching at the Jacksonville Public Library and the FSU Library, as well as traveling to explore the State Archives in Tallahassee in search of information related to the July 4th incident.

Currently writing a book about the colorful life of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Bob Broward told the audience in the Yulee Library that he was proud of the way Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (his father’s first cousin) handled that particular situation.  “The fact that Sheriff Broward reacted the way he did was pretty amazing in those tough times,” he said.  “He upheld the law, kept his head, and did the right thing in a volatile situation.”

“I’m not sure whether Broward called in the militia to prevent the lynching or to break up the black mob,” countered Kennedy, “but one way or the other, he kept the lid from blowing. If it had, a lot of people on both sides would have been hurt.”

A spirited panel discussion ensued, addressing the many un-prevented lynchings that occurred in the South during the first four decades of the 20th century, including several that took place in and around Jacksonville. 

Displaying a chilling photograph of five men hanged from one tree-limb that allegedly took place off of State Road 16 in the early 1930’s, Kennedy reflected that lynching was once an all too common tool used for sustaining white supremacy, whether by the “bedsheet brigade” (Ku Klux Klan) or by “spontaneous lynch mobs,” as illustrated by the hundreds of angry white men who traveled to Jacksonville in 1892.   He compared racist lynching to “the death squads currently being employed by oppressive regimes in many parts of the world today.”

Vandiver’s research for the book piqued her interest in further exploration of the South during and after the reconstruction period following the Civil War. 

“Jacksonville, in particular, had a great number of strong, well-educated black magistrates, judges, policemen and government officials during reconstruction,” she said.  “Even though they were systematically edged out of positions of power following reconstruction, many of these same people showed great courage and leadership when Benjamin Reed was threatened with lynching.”

Vandiver said one of the most important facts she learned as a result of researching the 4th of July conflict in Jacksonville was that when African Americans had the opportunity to resist, they would risk their lives to save someone from being lynched.  “In order to resist, however, they needed a certain number of people and a certain level of organization,” she said, noting that she discovered, through further research, that other lynchings were prevented in the same manner. “It is a little known part of the history of lynching and one that has tremendous potential for further study.”

As to Benjamin Reed, the 35 year old teamster that was saved from lynching, he was eventually tried and convicted of first degree murder in the death of Frank Burrows, and sentenced to hard labor for life.  The Florida Prison Register indicates he was admitted to prison on December 4, 1893, but there is no record of his death in prison or of his release.  Vandiver and Brainard did find the name Benjamin Reed in the Jacksonville City Directory for 1903, listed as a laborer who lived at the corner of Lee and Union Streets, but have never been able to verify whether or not he was the same man. 

“The book is written, but the research never really stops,” said Vandiver.  “We know Napoleon Bonaparte Broward left descendants behind.  I can’t help but wonder if there are descendants of Benjamin Reed in Jacksonville, and if they know what happened to him.”