Port Jervis remembers 1892 lynching

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 6/16/21

PORT JERVIS, NY — On June 2, more than 70 people gathered in Port Jervis, NY to commemorate the memory of Robert Lewis, a Black man who was lynched on that date in 1892. The walk was organized by the Friends of Robert Lewis, a group of individuals dedicated to preserving his memory and advocating for racial justice. While the walks have occurred on an individual basis for a decade, the group first assembled in 2019, starting an initiative that gained steam following the death of George Floyd.

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Port Jervis remembers 1892 lynching

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PORT JERVIS, NY — On June 2, more than 70 people gathered in Port Jervis, NY to commemorate the memory of Robert Lewis, a Black man who was lynched on that date in 1892. The walk was organized by the Friends of Robert Lewis, a group of individuals dedicated to preserving his memory and advocating for racial justice. While the walks have occurred on an individual basis for a decade, the group first assembled in 2019, starting an initiative that gained steam following the death of George Floyd.

The memorial walk began at the steps of the City of Port Jervis Municipal Building. Four members of the First Presbyterian Church of Port Jervis sang hymns, while members of the Friends of Robert Lewis handed out flowers, signs and informational pamphlets.

The walk proceeded from there along Sussex Street, following in the footsteps of the lynch mob from 129 years earlier. The walk turned onto E. Main street and proceeded along it to the corner of Main and Elizabeth, where it crossed the street and proceeded to the site of the lynching.

Education about the events of 1892 was a primary focus of the walk. Temporary signs were placed at notable landmarks along the route, signifying houses, memorials and pieces of scenery.

There is no permanent sign as of yet to mark the place of the lynching. The Friends of Robert Lewis have submitted an application to the Pomeroy Foundation, seeking the placement of a historical marker.

Throughout the walk, passages were read from a 2003 paper about the lynching. The paper had been written by Kristopher B. Burrell, an Associate Professor with CUNY Hostos Community College, who was also in attendance at the walk.

This is “the real power of knowing history... triumphant and tragic, patriotic and pitiful,” said Burrell. “[It] gives us the tools with which to construct a better future for everyone.”

Who was Robert Lewis?

A pamphlet handed out at the memorial walk states, “Not much is known about the brief 28-year life of Robert Lewis.”

Some details are known about Robert Lewis’s family. His stepfather, “Happy” Hank Jackson, was one of several Black Civil War veterans in Port Jervis. His mother, a long-time resident of the village, had moved to New Jersey some five years before the lynching.

Other details are known of Lewis’s employment. He worked as a bus driver at a livery stable in Port Jervis, located next to a hotel known as The Delaware House. Besides these sparse biographical details, most of what is known about Robert Lewis comes from the night of his death, June 2, 1892.

On that night, Robert Lewis had been arrested outside of the village in connection to the alleged rape of a white woman. The search party that had seized him, a party comprising four local residents, drove him in a wagon to Port Jervis, there to turn him over to the town’s lock-up.

Rumors had already begun to spread in Port Jervis ahead of the returning party. By the time Robert Lewis reached the lock-up, a mob of up to 2,000 people had gathered, intent on lynching him. The mob seized him from the wagon, tearing him from police custody, and dragged him up Sussex Street.

Several of the town’s prominent citizens attempted to protect Lewis. Village police officers, a prominent village lawyer and village president O. P. Howell all attempted to protect Lewis from the crowd.

Their efforts were, ultimately, in vain. Robert Lewis was hanged just outside a house on East Main Street in the shadow of a Methodist Church.

Who are we?

Standing at the site of the lynching, 129 years after it had occurred, there were easy avenues for comparison between the past and the present.

Paul Zorn, pastor at a Methodist Church mere blocks away, remarked on how the crowd in 1892 had been made of people who looked very similar to those standing there in 2021, though the two crowds had been on the site for very different reasons. Port Jervis Mayor Kelly Decker asked participants to close their eyes and imagine themselves among the mob of 129 years ago. He told them to ask themselves, “Could we have changed that crowd of 2,000 people?”

Yet the memorial did not dwell on the past morbidly, or with fatalism. It looked to preserve Robert Lewis’ memory and to inspire change in the present.

In an email exchange with the River Reporter, Robert Eurich, a member of the Friends of Robert Lewis, remained hopeful that the walk could lead to positive change. “Overcoming racism and white supremacism... will take time and effort, but if yesterday’s remembrance walk and other initiatives we’ve started are any indication, we are heading in the right direction.”

The Friends of Robert Lewis have begun a number of initiatives towards that end, conducting classes on the lynching, participating in virtual events on race and racism, and helping spread awareness and education.

Various community leaders present at the event offered their institutions as leaders in the project of creating change. Mayor Decker, himself a historian and a teacher, advocated for the role of education in pushing home equality, especially among younger students. Bishop James Rollins, of the Tabernacle Church in Middletown, advocated for the role of the church, saying that the church needs to lead the way in order for efforts for racial equality to make headway.

The collaboration between civic leaders, religious figures and involved citizens made the walk possible made its own case, one which placed collaboration at the core of the struggle.

For more information, find the Friends of Robert Lewis on Facebook, or contact them at 1892RobertLewis@gmail.com. A scanned historical article about the lynching can be found at www.bit.ly/3tUlz7c.

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