LABELLE — A new bench has been placed in Barron Park, with a plaque. The plaque reads, “To the memory of Henry Patterson, who died on May 11, 1926, in LaBelle, and Herbert Rider and Wesley C. Richards who tried to bring those responsible to justice.” This memorial bench is located under the large oak facing the Caloosahatchee River, and is the result of efforts made by a local history professor and his students.
“The project came from my African American History classes that I taught at FSW. I heard about the lynching, but had students do primary and secondary source research as part of a final project. There is an effort by the Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize lynchings; that is where I got the idea for a memorial,” said Brandon Jett, a LaBelle resident and history professor at Florida SouthWestern State College.
“I think the cool part is this research really emerged from local students. They seem really interested in the lynching and finding out more about it. When I asked them in class, they all supported the idea of some kind of memorial,” explained Jett. “I’m also working on a digital history project right now related to the lynching. It is a collection of primary and secondary sources and will hopefully include oral histories from locals. It will be rolled out over the summer.
“There are actually a few memorials to Patterson around town. One is a brick in front of the LaBelle Heritage Museum and another is in the dedication page from book called The News of Hendry County, or something, that summarizes the newspaper from 1920-1932, I think,” said Jett. “It is in the library, and also the Clerk of Court has a copy.”
“The lynching of Henry Patterson on May 11, 1926, is familiar to many longtime residents of LaBelle. On that fateful day, Patterson, a twenty-something-year-old black man working as part of a road crew, startled Hattie Crawford, a white woman. As Ms. Crawford ran from her home screaming, nearby locals interpreted her behavior as evidence that Patterson had assaulted her,” explained Jett. “Although the assault accusation was never verified and Crawford later admitted Patterson did nothing wrong, this misinterpretation led to a spectacle of debauchery that ultimately led to the lynching of Patterson.”
Jett further explained: “As traumatic as this story is, it is not unique. Throughout the Jim Crow era (roughly 1890 to 1965) thousands of African Americans met similar fates. In Florida alone, one recent study found that 331 African Americans were lynched, 34 African Americans were lynched in Orange County, 30 in Marion County, 19 in both Alachua and Polk counties, and 17 in both Columbia and Taylor counties.” Jett added, “While these statistics don’t excuse the mob members here locally, it is important for locals today to remember that this one incident of lynching, while horrific, is not something exclusive to LaBelle.”
Jett said, “Unlike most other lynchings, in not only the state but the country as a whole, some locals stood up to the mob and attempted to prosecute those responsible.
“Herbert A. Rider, the local prosecutor, and Wesley Richards, a local judge, took the unprecedented steps of launching an investigation into the lynching, calling in the National Guard to protect witnesses during the investigation, and arrested 14 men allegedly involved in the mob killing. About a month and a half after the lynching, Rider and Richards worked assiduously to gather the evidence, file charges and get a grand jury trial. Although the grand jury trial was eventually moved to Lee County and for several reasons the grand jury failed to indict the 14 men in early December 1926, the prosecutorial effort is something worthy of praise. To my knowledge, this was the first attempted prosecution of members of a lynch mob in the state’s history,” Jett said.
“I think it is important for LaBelle to recognize and valorize the efforts by Herbert A. Rider and Wesley Richards (the prosecutor and a local judge) for trying to prosecute those responsible. To me, they really tried to bring those responsible to justice,” said Jett. “That was really unprecedented in Florida at the time. I’m sure they faced an incredible backlash for their efforts. Nonetheless, they pursued it.
“I hope people see the bench and plaque as a tribute to Henry Patterson, who wasn’t from LaBelle and we don’t know much about him, his life, or his family. He is only known for this one, incredibly tragic moment,” explains Jett. “It breaks my heart to think about how his family heard he had been lynched. We don’t even know where he was from. Some speculate Memphis, others Birmingham. It is just unclear.”
If you are interested in learning more about what happened to Henry Patterson in 1926, read the following story: A lynching in LaBelle.