The Ballad of Oscar Mack

A Rollins professor and his class are trying to piece together the puzzle of a 1920s lynching.

From the July 19, 1922 edition of the Prescott Evening Courier. From the July 19, 1922 edition of the Prescott Evening Courier.

The last thing Oscar Mack ever saw was Lake Jennie Jewel.

Much of what happened that day, July 18, 1922, remains lost to history. But we do know that Mack, a World War I veteran two months shy of 30, was lynched by a mob of angry whites from Kissimmee. We know that this was an act of revenge: A few days earlier, Mack had shot and killed two white men. And we also know that the location of his death was carefully selected. At the time, Lake Jennie Jewel lay in a sort of weird jurisdictional nexus between three Orange County municipalities, which meant that no police department was likely to take the case too seriously.

At the time, the event received only glancing interest from the press. After all, in Florida a century ago, racism was pervasive, the Ku Klux Klan was strong, and the lynching of blacks was not uncommon. The year before, in fact, had witnessed the Ocoee race riots, in which July Perry, an influential black man, was lynched. As the story goes, he’d been trying to get fellow blacks out to vote. A group of armed whites went to his home one night in 1921, and a gun battle ensued. Two whites died. Perry was wounded, and then arrested. A white mob either dragged him out of an Orlando jail or snatched him as he was being led out of the city. Either way, he was killed. And then a white mob systematically burned down Ocoee’s black community, killing as many as 30. A few months after Mack’s death came the notorious Rosewood massacre in Northwest Florida.

Those events have, at least in recent years, garnered attention from authors and history buffs and community groups. Oscar Mack’s story, and the stories of the countless others who suffered his fate, has gone largely unnoticed.

That’s something Professor Julian Chambliss wants to remedy. The coordinator of Rollins’ African and African-American Studies Program—who also happens to be an expert on superheroes and Dr. Who—Chambliss has been engaged in community-based research into the experience of black Floridians since he arrived here in 2003. And this semester, his African-American History since 1877 course is trying to piece together the puzzle that is Mack’s life and death. And, given the paucity of media attention the hanging receives—not to mention the paucity of historical data on a presumably average African America of the era—there are many knowledge gaps to fill in.

“I would like to document the story,” Chambliss says, “and get it into the narrative of the community.”

Chambliss first heard about Mack from a colleague in the Democracy Forum, a group of community activists and academics who helped bring the Ocoee race riots to light in the late ’90s and early 2000s, a couple years ago. The colleague said he’s seen a mention of it in the NAACP’s microfilm archives. Then Chambliss read about it in a history book—just a paragraph about an unremarkable lynching. He later mentioned it to a colleague.

Their curiosity piqued, Chambliss, his community partners, and later his class began investigating. Here’s what they found: Census records reported that Mack was born on September 18, 1892. Ancestry.com said his father was from Georgia and his mother from North Carolina. His draft and military records indicate that he was a conscripted World War I-era vet. He served overseas from June 30, 1918, to July 5, 1919, though he was never wounded. Mack was honorably discharged on July 17, 1919.

After the Great War, Chambliss points out, many African-American veterans began exerting their rights more forcefully. On the continent, they’d not been treated like second-class citizens, or worse. “French people and Europeans treated them like human beings,” Chambliss says.

In the North, this mentality led to the Harlem Renaissance. In the South, July Perry wanted to vote, and Oscar Mack wanted a decent living. He bid on and received a federal contract running mail between a railroad depot and the post office.

“I think it was unusual,” Chambliss says. “What you see in the records is that people were shocked. The white residents are incensed.”

So incensed, in fact, that two white men—probably, but not certainly, Klansmen—plotted to put Mack in his place. Apparently, a post office employee got wind of the threat and tipped Mack off. And so, when the two white men pulled up to Mack’s house, he opened fire and killed them.

What happened next is a little foggier, although Mack most assuredly did not face a jury of his peers. A weekly newspaper in Kissimmee reported a few days later that he was found guilty by a “coroner’s jury.” “The coroner’s jury was his trial. That was the end of it,” Chambliss says. “Everything after that, it’s just not clear.”

In the end, Mack was taken to Orlando and hung. Nobody was ever arrested or prosecuted for killing him. His body has never been located. The state of Florida doesn’t even have an official record of his death.

It’s unlikely, to say the least, that Chambliss’s students will solve the mysteries of Mack’s death by the end of the semester. But they will add to an increasing body of knowledge—and post their information on a history wiki.

“Now you have these elements that are coming together,” Chambliss says. “It’s an ongoing project. I suspect that at the end of this semester, the students will be super frustrated. But they will have created a tremendous amount of a better understanding of what has become a forgotten incident.”