On this dayJan 28, 1934

Black Man Cleared of Rape Charge; Later Lynched in Tampa, Florida

On January 28, 1934, a 40-year-old black man named Robert Johnson was arrested in Tampa, Florida, and accused of raping and robbing a white woman. Tampa police investigated and quickly cleared Mr. Johnson of the charges, but nonetheless issued a warrant accusing him of stealing chickens and turkeys. As a result, Mr. Johnson was not released, and instead had to be transferred from the city jail to the county jail.

Deputy Constable Thomas Grave was assigned to move Mr. Johnson and decided to do so after midnight; this was not standard procedure, and Graves later claimed he opted for a late night transfer to avoid waking up early in the morning. Around 2:30 a.m. on January 30th, Graves placed Mr. Johnson in the front seat of the police car and began driving to the county jail. On the way, three cars full of white men stopped Graves’s vehicle, allegedly disarmed the deputy, and made him lie face down in the back seat of his car while they kidnapped Robert Johnson.

It was not uncommon for lynch mobs to seize their victims from jails, prisons, courtrooms, or out of police hands. Though they were armed and charged with protecting the men and women and custody, police almost never used force to resist white lynch mobs intent on killing black people. In some cases, police officials were even found to be complicit or active participants in lynchings.

The mob carried Robert Johnson to a wooded part of town along the Hillsborough River near Sligh Avenue, where about thirty people were gathered to watch the lynching. The men killed Mr. Johnson with four shots to the head and one to the body, all fired from the pistol issued to Deputy Constable Graves.

After the lynching, Governor David Sholtz called for an investigation and a grand jury was convened. Though Deputy Constable Graves testified that he was beaten by the mob, the grand jury noted that he bore no bruises or other signs of injury. Nevertheless, the grand jury claimed its investigation revealed no evidence of conspiracy; no one was ever prosecuted for Robert Johnson’s murder.

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