We summarize below what is known about the lynchings, which occurred in 1923 and 1926. What most strikes us today is the lack of concern for the victims shown by the white community. In the case of Henry Simmons, the racist mob almost certainly was mistaken in choosing its victim, and despite numerous interviews, no perpetrators were identified. With Samuel Nelson, the only concern about his abduction from jail and murder that was shown by the Delray City Council was that his jailer not be held responsible for his fate.
On June 7, 1923, Henry Simmons living with his wife (Ethel) at a boarding house in West Palm Beach and was called out by a group of men and taken away in a car. His body was found riddled with bullets hanging from a tree on the island of Palm Beach near where a police officer was shot and killed a few days earlier while questioning individuals in possession of turtle meat and eggs. According to an article in a local newspaper, Mr. Simmons was not considered a suspect in the shooting of the police officer.
On September 26, 1926, Samuel Nelson was in the jail at Delray on a charge of attempted criminal assault of a white woman in Miami. The next morning the steel door of the jail was found battered open and the body of Samuel Nelson was found riddled with bullets next to a canal in west Delray. The headline in the Palm Beach Post stated, "Negro is taken from the Delray Jail and Lynched".
The Case of Henry Simmons
In articles dated between 4 and 10 June 1923, the Palm Beach Post reports on the lynching of Henry Simmons in retaliation for the death of Palm Beach policeman J.N. Smith.
In pre-dawn hours of 3 June 1923, Officer J.N. Smith stopped "three negroes in regard to the butchering of a turtle" and the possible possession of turtle meat and eggs. A struggle ensued, and Officer Smith was shot with his own firearm. The men fled on bicycles. Officer Smith died from the injury three days later.
In an attempt to avenge the crime, several white men apprehended one James Sands in West Palm Beach, brought him to a site on Ocean Boulevard and beat him, only to be stopped by one of his assailants who, upon the removal of the hood from Sands' head, declared, "Don't kill him; he's not the one." The party returned Sands to West Palm Beach where they sought another victim.
The party of white men arrived in the early hours of 7 June at a rooming house in West Palm Beach where they roused Henry Simmons and demanded that Simmons come with them. Without time to get his clothes, Simmons was taken from the rooming house, to the site where his body was found, lynched, later that morning. Drivers of an ice delivery truck found Simmons' body hanging from a tree on the Pendleton Track "almost on the site where the policeman was shot." Newspaper accounts report the location as on the Palm Beach county road [sic] north of the corner with Barton Avenue and south of the hotel grounds.
A coroner's jury verdict established the cause of death as a broken neck, and Judge E. C. Davis called for a special grand jury to investigate the death of Officer Smith and the lynching of Henry Simmons.
Ethel Simmons, Henry's wife, took his body back to Hawthorne, Florida, Henry's hometown, where he was interred next to family members in the town cemetery.
No connection was ever established between Henry Simmons and the policeman's death, and no one was ever charged in Henry Simmons' death.
Read Article by Burl Salmon on His Visit to Henry Simmons Grave.
The Case of Samuel Nelson
What we know about the lynching of Samuel Nelson comes from two documents: an Associated Press story printed in the Palm Beach Post, and the minutes of the Delray City Council for 27 September, 1926.
The Associated Press report, published in the Palm Beach Post on 17 October 1926, tells us that Mr. Nelson, supposedly charged with assaulting a white woman in Miami, was arrested in Delray on the afternoon of 26 September and placed in jail. "The following morning the steel door of the jail was found battered open and the negro gone. A short time later the body of Nelson was found on the bank of a canal near the military trail, four miles west of Delray."
On the evening of the 27th, the Delray City Council met. The final item in its minutes reads as follows:
Mr. W. M. Crofts, Chief of Police, reported verbally in regard to the removal of a colored prisoner from jail by forceable entry into the jail on the night of September 26th or the early morning of September 27th. The Chief reported that the prisoner had been placed in the local jail about 3 P. M. Sunday, September 26th, that he refused to turn said prisoner over to a man who purported to be from Miami, that the prisoner to his knowledge was in the jail at midnight September 26th. It was regularly moved, seconded and carried unanimously on the roll call that the police department of the City of Delray should be exonerated and be declared free of any blame of neglect in regard to the above mentioned jail delivery.
The minutes do not take note of Mr. Nelson's murder. The AP story tells us that Nelson's body was found "riddled with bullets"; that a coroner's jury investigated and found Nelson suffered "death at the hands of parties unknown"; and that Miami police said they "did not recall an assault case of this kind...." We are left to assume that the man from Miami was not from the police, remained in Delray after being denied Mr. Nelson, and later gained access to the jail.
The eye of the devastating 1926 hurricane made landfall just south of Miami on 18 September, 1926. Whether it would have been easy to travel from Miami to Delray 8 days later remains in question. We have been unable to unearth any report of the lynching handed down across generations among residents of Delray. Despite the lynching of Henry Simmons just three years earlier, the Palm Beach Post paid the incident no attention apart from the brief AP story. Subsequent City Commission minutes do not refer to it.
Prepared by Fr. Burl Salmon and Mark Schneider for the Coalition.