By Josephine Gon
Vice President, Jewish Community Relations Council
Published September 20, 2022

In a previous blog I discussed the Palm Beach County Community Remembrance Project and how I came to serve on the coalition tasked with bringing the memorial to Palm Beach County.

One of the required elements in this process of memorializing the victims of terror lynchings, is to collect soil from the site of the lynchings. This symbolic act is best expressed by Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Founder and Executive Director, who said:

“In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future.”

The first soil collection ceremony to remember Samuel Nelson was held on June 18, 2022, as part of the Juneteenth Celebrations in Delray Beach.  You can view the videos of the soil preparation and the ceremony here and you can read about this very moving ceremony here.

In another development, at a Delray Beach Commission meeting on September 19, 2022 Commissioner Shirley Johnson requested the commission reopen the 1926 investigation into the abduction and death of Samuel Nelson – which lasted one day.  The commission agreed and directed the Delray Beach Police Department to do so.

 “After ninety-two years, this September 26th, I quite understand that this is truly a cold case.  While it is not my intention to utilize any police or City resources to solve this case, I do believe it is important to have it reside in the unsolved case annal of the city.  My request is to have it reopened and placed in that state for historical purposes.  Our City Commission/City Administration action says that “the life of Mr. Nelson matters”. While our actions may never bring justice for Mr. Nelson and any related family members, it does recognize the value of all human life, respect for the rules of law and our desire to recognize the wrong actions taken by the official government at that time,” said Ms. Johnson.  

BACKGROUND ON THIS CASE: Samuel Nelson was lynched on September 26, 1926. At that time, Mr. Nelson was being held in the Delray Beach jail on a charge of attempted assault of a white woman in Miami. The next morning, the steel door of his cell was found battered open and Samuel Nelson’s body was found riddled with bullets on a canal bank west of Delray Beach. No one was held accountable for his murder.

The soil collected from the lynching site will be preserved in glass jars to be displayed at:

  • the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama
  • the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach
  • and at sites around Palm Beach County (still to be determined)

The soil collection ceremony for lynching victim Henry Simmons will take place at a later date.

To learn more about Samuel Nelson, Henry Simmons and the Palm Beach County Community Remembrance Project, visit pbcremembrance.org

The Remembrance Project and its initiatives recently received recognition from the City of West Palm Beach.

Jewish Federation is planning to visit the EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice on Federation’s Civil Rights Journey to Georgia and Alabama, November 13-15, 2022.

Read Josephine Gon’s JCRC blog to stay up to date about issues affecting the Jewish community of the Palm Beaches.