Alachua County’s Troubling Racial History

By Paul Lombardo, Bailey Godwin, Isabella Marzban, Javier Palacios, and Brooke Johsnon

Paul Lombardo
6 min readDec 6, 2022

In the 1850s, a Black-fearing Gainesville rallied a strong secessionist sentiment. The white population wanted to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. They wanted to conserve slavery.

With fear in their hearts following the abolitionist John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, the Gainesville Minutemen, a local militia group, was formed by Gainesville citizens.

When Florida inevitably seceded from the Union, the Gainesville Minutemen became incorporated into the First Florida Regiment to fight for the right to own slaves in Alachua County and all of the south.

Across local newspapers, topics that included the Black majority of Alachua County growing, the tension between Blacks and whites, and the Gainesville Minutemen were covered.

During the Civil War, newspapers around Alachua County focused on southern tensions surrounding slavery and its overall economic role in society.

A photo from the University of Florida Digital Collection featuring the Cotton States

Articles such as “The Negro Soldier Question” were written for The Cotton States, a Gainesville newspaper issued on April 20, 1865.

“The Negro Soldier Question” pondered the idea of allowing slaves to fight for the Confederacy. Another article from The Cotton States, “The Bill Arming the Negroes,” further contemplated the idea.

The white population of Gainesville’s Southern-leaning sentiment became solidified for the remainder of the war following the city’s most notable skirmish: The Battle of Gainesville.

When fighting eventually found its way into Alachua County during the Civil War, the most notable of which was the Battle of Gainesville. This was the first and most notable skirmish that occurred within Gainesville.

On February 15, 1864, the Second Florida Cavalry Battalion, accompanied by the Gainesville Minutemen militia, attacked over 340 Union troops as the northern army attempted to occupy the town of Gainesville. 40 Union troops escaped and were driven out of Gainesville, leaving the town completely in control of the confederacy until the end of the war in 1865.

“In the overall big picture of the war, many historians would likely see this action had very little impact on the conflict as a whole,” said Keith Kohl, historian and author of “Florida’s Civil War Years.” “From a more locally regional viewpoint, it was considerable in that it helped prevent substantial disruption of the supply resources.”

Battle of Gainesville marker, located in the plaza near the Old Library Building, on July 11, 2022. (Photo/Ebyabe)

To some historians, the Battle of Gainesville bears little for the overall war, but Kohl presents a different perspective. “On the other hand, the [Confederate] victory in this action would be quite a morale boost considering how few soldiers remained in Florida, [as] the vast majority of Confederate troops had been drawn to other theaters of action,” said Kohl.

As with most of the country, the struggle for Blacks in Gainesville did not end with the conclusion of the Civil War. After the Civil War, Gainesville quickly became a town with a Black majority due to the presence of the 3rd United States Colored Troops, an army regiment composed almost entirely of Black soldiers.

A photo of the company of the 107th United States Colored Troops taken on Nov. 1, 1865. (Photo/Gardner)

Black residents of Gainesville continued to live under worse conditions than whites. When it came to education, the first school for Blacks, the Union Academy, was established in 1866.

According to a book by Charles Hildreth and Merlin Cox, “History of Gainesville, Florida 1854–1979,” the public school system was severely underfunded, especially in comparison to the private schools that white students were attending at the time. This funding issue was so apparent that classes would only sometimes meet in abandoned houses or rented rooms and only have classes for three months out of the year.

Lynchings per county by Bailey Godwin

Beyond poorer living standards in Gainesville and the Alachua County area, Blacks experienced eight documented lynchings alone during the Reconstruction era. Alachua County experienced more than 50.

Projects like Newberry’s Community Remembrance effort make strides in uncovering past lynchings, including “The Newberry Six lynchings”. In the 21st century, Alachua County worked with newspapers — including the Gainesville Sun and the Independent Florida Alligator — to help uncover lynchings in Alachua County.

On Feb. 28, 2020, Gainesville Sun’s Cindy Swirko reported on four lynchings that occurred in Alachua County — Newnansville, Wacahoota and Micanopy — during 1867. Along with the 1867 lynchings, Swirko covers the Newberry Six and all Alachua Couty lynchings from the 1860s to 1920s.

On Oct. 25, 2021, Erina Anwar, a reporter for the Independent Florida Alligator, covered eight lynchings that took place in Alachua County during the 1860s. Anwar helped bring the majority of the victims’ names to light through her coverage of lynchings along with the work of Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn who discovered the victims’ names.

Slavery timeline by Bailey Godwin

“[It’s] really disturbing that we live in a place where so much murder occurred,” Anwar said, “if people know that they live in a state that has so much history of lynchings and hate crime, that could make them all the more aware that things need to change.”

According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s “Lynching in America” report, Florida had the second highest rate of lynchings per capita out of the 12 most active lynching states (Equal Justice Initiative, 3d Ed. 2017). Furthermore, the EJI report ranks Alachua County as the fifth Florida county with the most active lynchings rates compared to 25 other Florida counties during the 1800s (Equal Justice Initiative, 3d Ed. 2017).

According to the National Council for Black Studies, Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, an adjunct associate professor for UF’s African American Studies Program, is accredited with bringing forth the names of Alachua County lynching victims, which were not disclosed in newspapers during the 1800s.

History of lynchings in Alachua County by Brooke Johnson

Often, newspapers in Alachua County, such as the Gainesville Sun, referred to African Americans as either “negro[s]” or “mulatto[s]” — a word to describe mixed-race people in the South during the 1800s and early 1900s. Through the Alachua County Truth and Reconciliation Project, Dr. Hilliard-Nunn helped discover the names of lynching victims — George Bibbon, Cooley Johnson, Jacob Lee and Hary Simonton (Swirko, 2020).

“I spoke to her [Dr. Hilliard-Nunn’s] husband, and he told me that this was a passion project of hers to dig up research on people who were lynched in this area,” Anwar said, “she went out and talked to people who are in historically Black neighborhoods and found out stories through that way.”

Through extensive research, Dr. Hilliard-Nunn found the names of these victims by directly going to descendants of their families and using historical archives to provide a name to some of the lynching victims in Alachua County. On Oct. 23, 2021, a commemorative marker for 12 lynching victims was able to be placed in Gainesville because of Dr. Hilliard-Nunn’s research that led to the names of Alachua County lynching victims being revealed.

Graphic by Bailey Godwin

During the time of these lynchings, Alachua County newspapers did not provide the names of those murdered, leaving one of the eight victims still nameless in the present day. Throughout Florida’s history with slavery, newspapers were more inclined to report on slave auctions and put advertisements in the paper when a slave escaped.

When a slave got hung, lynched, or whipped, newspapers did not put the victim’s name in the paper — only when a slave was auctioned their name may be put in a newspaper ad.

In the 21st century, Alachua County newspapers provide names of lynching victims that the newspapers did not originally state during the 1860s and has made an active effort to commemorate the lives of lynching victims in order to confront the county’s racist past.



Paul Lombardo

Journalist writing about video games and the stories they tell | Student at the University of Florida