LAKEWOOD RANCH — Carter Woodson, the author/ historian who founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915, knew the key to ending racial oppression was education, its scope far more transformational than piecemeal laws against mob violence.
“This crusade,” he said, “is much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.”
Woodson’s legacy played out again Thursday morning when the Manasota branch of ASALH convened for its 20th annual holiday breakfast, which included a seasonal celebration skit. Counting the largest chapter membership in the nation, the local group drew 272 members and friends to the Fete Catering & Ballroom to celebrate “Sankofa,” an African word meaning looking to ancestors for guidance in preparation for the future.
It would be difficult to imagine the Sankofa theme resonating with more poignancy than for Caryl Sheffield, whose paternal grandfather was lynched in the deep South the same year Woodson established ASALH. The killers were never brought to justice. Sheffield pursued a career in education.
“I do believe that children are our future, and that’s where my interests are, particularly in mentoring young girls,” said Sheffield, whose husband, James Stewart, is president of the Manasota ASALH branch and past president of the national organization. “But you have to teach history so that they can understand it, which means starting out with your own family history.”
Stewart and Sheffield, like the vast majority of the local ASALH membership, are transplants to the Sarasota area. According to event co-planner Jacqui Fitzgerald, just 5 percent are home grown, a statistic seized upon by longtime resident, keynote speaker and attorney Keith DuBose.
Since the Manasota chapter’s inception in 1996, the organization has contributed more than $300,000 in college scholarship money through various fundraisers for local minority students. DuBose, the first African-American president of the Sarasota County Bar Association, spoke of the need to bring more college graduates back to the area. “We really, really want to make change, not just talk about it,” he said.
Between now and then, many of the largely retired ASALH members volunteer their time to mentor local youngsters. Joining them soon will be Caryl Sheffield, who retired from California University of Pennsylvania in 2015 after 30 years as a student, professor and administrator. A former civil rights and anti-war activist, Sheffield brought the long view of personal history into Thursday’s meeting.
Although associated with death by hanging, the official definition of lynching is to kill someone by any means, usually at the hands of a mob, without a benefit of a trial. And that’s what happened to Caesar Sheffield, the paternal grandfather she never knew, in April 1915.
The details of what happened in Lake Park, Georgia, were sketchy 102 years ago, and the trail is impossibly cold today. When she visited the local historical society and asked for records of the incident, Sheffield says a curator told her, “We don’t really like to talk about that — we’ve kinda gotten past all that.”
In fact, official documentation was nonexistent, and a microfilm search from newspaper archives in nearby Valdosta shed little light on the event. According to a brief article, Sheffield was arrested on charges of stealing meat from the smokehouse of a man named Elder Herring. The insertion of race into the account implies that Herring was white. “The prison was forced open by unknown parties and cries were heard from the negro (Sheffield) about 9 o’clock last night,” states the piece, dated April 17, 1915.
Sheffield’s body was found in a field near the train station. No arrests were made. His granddaughter’s efforts to locate a gravesite were futile. Caesar Sheffield’s name resides in a national database that includes more than 4,000 lynchings in the United States from 1877-1950.
What Sheffield knows for sure is that Caesar’s surviving family, which included his son Eugene, left town in the aftermath. They initially moved to Florida before winding up in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where Caryl Sheffield was born. Eugene remarried after the death of his first wife. Caryl became one of 21 children in the blended family.
Before his death in 1969, Eugene told his daughter than his father immigrated to the U.S. via Ellis Island. He told her that Caesar had come as an assistant to an Englishman, and that immigration agents likely assigned Caesar the last name of his home in England.
As a third-grader in an all-white class, Sheffield remembers refusing to cooperate on an assignment to ask parents about family ancestry. Her thoughts about Africa were riddled with such negative stereotypes she felt ashamed to explore it.
Sheffield went on to become a special education teacher, earn a doctorate, earn a Fulbright scholarship, get appointed associate provost and associate vice president for Academic Affairs at California University of Pennsylvania, and join the school’s Frederick Douglass Institute as well as the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Her home is adorned with a collection of African-American artwork, and she has plans to visit Ghana — whose Akan people came up with the “sankofa” term — next year.
“I always remember a quote from (African-American historian) Molefi Asante,” Sheffield said. “He said all children going through American public schools will graduate as racists unless there’s an intervention. We have to be mindful.”