Willie James Howard was fifteen years old when he was killed by three white men. His crime was to pursue a youthful crush on a white co-worker, Cynthia Goff, who was the same age as Howard.
In the Christmas of 1943 Howard sent cards to Cynthia and other employees at the dime store where he worked. He signed Cynthia’s card “with L” (love). It appears Cynthia was upset by the card or told her father about it. On New Year’s Day Howard delivered a second note explaining the card and asking Cynthia not to be mad. At the bottom of the page a few lines were added: “I love your name, I love your voice, for a S.H (sweetheart) you are my choice.”
The next morning, January 2, Cynthia’s father Phil Goff and two of his friends came to the Howard home. At gunpoint the men dragged Willie from the arms of his mother. They then collected the boy’s father, James Howard, and drove to an embankment on the Suwannee River. Willie Howard was bound by his feet and hands and made to stand at the edge of the river where, according to his father’s testimony, he was told he could either jump into the river of his own accord or be shot. Willie jumped and drowned.
Later that evening Goff and his accomplices provided the sheriff with a signed statement alleging they had taken Willie Howard from his home intending to discipline him. They admitted binding his feet so he would not run away, but claimed that the boy became hysterical and jumped into the river, drowning himself, to avoid a whipping administered by his father. Under threat for his life James Howard signed the statement, supporting Goff’s version of events. Three days later the Howards sold their house and fled to Orlando.
Willie Howard’s case was picked up by NAACP affiliated investigator Harry T. Moore. Moore obtained affidavits from the victim’s parents explaining what really occurred that day and affirming that James Howard had been threatened into supporting Goff’s version of events. Moore was not hopeful that justice could be achieved at a local level and his suspicions were proven correct when a grand jury failed to indict Goff and his associates. Moore continued to pursue the case hoping for a federal prosecution, but this was never achieved.
The Howard case has been revived in recent years. Douglas Udell, a funeral director and Suwannee County commissioner took an interest in the story and decided to provide the young victim with the proper memorial he never received at the time of his death. Udell purchased a headstone for Howard’s grave and on January 2, 2005, sixty-one years after Howard’s death, a funeral service was held at Springfield Baptist Church. Around the same time historian Marvin Dunn began researching the case. Dunn directed a documentary film on the story entitled “Murder on the Suwannee” and petitioned Florida’s then Attorney General, Charlie Christ, to reopen Howard’s case.