Memorial Day weekend is a fitting setting to remember Lee Snell, a World War I Army veteran, who, in 1939, was the victim of racial terror by lynching in Daytona Beach.
Pfc. Snell is the first of the Volusia Five to be memorialized in the Volusia Remembers initiative, through a Saturday-morning service at his little-known grave in the Mount Ararat Cemetery in Daytona Beach.
In attendance were veterans, dignitaries, university historians, and local NAACP chapter leaders.
Intentionally a small gathering (with social distancing practiced) due to the current pandemic, participants stood in a wide circle and took turns sharing with each other — and with a broader audience via Facebook Live — what is known about this honorable man, who was denied all honor when his blood was spilled in extralegal violence.
The historical setting of Snell’s death was the Jim Crow era, in which the largely unpunished practice of lynching claimed more than 5,000 black victims, Bethune-Cookman University history professor Rick Buckelew said during the service. Those involved terrorized the remaining black population into submission to laws and norms meant to subjugate them as subhuman.
Mary Allen, director of DeLand’s African American Museum of the Arts, eulogized a man who should have remained alive into her own lifetime. Unfortunately, Mr. Snell’s life was snuffed out with a firearm on April 29, 1939, in a highway ambush involving a deputy’s vehicle, in which Snell was supposedly under protective custody.
As was common in the era of lynching, the extralegal execution was carried out with brash impunity, inflicting Snell’s family with a grief devoid of justice.
Allen pointed out that in 43 short years, Mr. Snell had accomplished much, especially in the context of the extremely limited opportunities afforded to black men in the Jim Crow South.
In addition to serving his country in the trenches in France, he was a family man, he owned his own taxicab, and he was held in high esteem by the local black community.
His high standing in the community was evidenced by the large crowd of supporters attending a hearing regarding the accidental death of a young white male bicyclist who strayed into traffic and was struck by Mr. Snell’s taxicab.
No one at the inquest accused Mr. Snell of driving carelessly, much less of striking the youth intentionally.
Fast-forwarding to the present, and, sadly, none of Snell’s living relatives were able to attend Saturday’s memorial to share stories of his life to reveal more of his true character.
As Rina Arroyo of Stetson University shared beside Mr. Snell’s gravestone, our partners at the Equal Justice Initiative hope “a new era of truth-telling” will catalyze a “beloved community” here in Volusia County and around the country.
“I am not interested in punishing America with this history. I want to liberate us,” Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson said. “I think we are a nation that has never truly sought truth and reconciliation. We are not going to be free, really free, until we pursue that.”
This sentiment was echoed by retired Judge Hubert Grimes at the Mount Ararat Cemetery.
“White Americans have never apologized for slavery; thus black Americans have never forgiven them for it,” he said.
By confronting this hard history, Volusia Remembers seeks to heal our festering racial wounds and forge a reconciled and united future.
At Saturday’s memorial, Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry spoke up to honor Mr. Snell, affirm the work of the coalition, and offer his unreserved support of Volusia Remembers.
He noted that some have considered Daytona Beach to be “above the curve” due to the extraordinary achievements of black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, but cautioned against accepting that superficial reading of our history.
Volusia Remembers is striving to embody this healing and teamwork across the color line, which we hope will become as common as the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Cessna planes that made it hard to hear the morning’s presenters.
Those deadened voices remind us that the sorrow-laden voices of Lee Snell’s people have been suppressed for 400 years.
While airplane engines drowned out some of the words of remembrance, songbirds seemed to accentuate them – hinting at the joyful melody of the “beloved community” that Volusia Remembers hopes to nurture.
After a prayer offered by the Rev. Reginald Williams, the memorial ended with a song of human voices – “God Bless America” – emphasizing the grace we’ll need to receive and share with each other in order to forge a future of trust and joyful friendship.
Belated by 81 years, black and white Volusians jointly decorated Mr. Snell’s grave with a U.S. flag, a patriotic wreath, and even a ceremonial libation (a traditional way to honor ancestors) around a freshly cleaned tombstone.
With various upcoming events, including the collection and display of soil from lynching sites and the installation of historical markers and monuments, the Volusia Remembers Coalition will continue to use history to shed light on present-day racial tensions and start a hopeful dialogue leading toward a positive future — together.
— Evan Keller is communications chair of the Volusia Remembers Coalition. All are invited to join in future memorial and educational events, which will be announced at www.volusiaremembers.org and www.facebook.com/volusiaremembers. You may also contact steering committee co-chairs Sharon Stafford & Grady Ballenger to inquire about involvement by emailing email@example.com. Visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s website at www.eji.org.