Last week brought learning, remembrance and understanding of a tragic day in Port Jervis history, a long ago spring day forever changed by quick judgement, brutal action, and the horrific murder of a Port Jervian by his fellow citizens and neighbors.
A historic marker was placed and dedicated in Port Jervis this week, marking the site of that murder -- and recalling one of the most brutal and unjust days in the city's history. The marker recalls the mob-lynching of Robert Lewis more than a century ago. Held on the same day of the week, time of day, and date of the year as that tragic day back then, the wild anger of the 1892 crowd was replaced by understanding, sorrow, and regret in last week’s gathering.
The mayors of Orange County’s three cities were each among speakers at last week’s gathering spot on the lawn of City Hall. Port Jervis Mayor Kelly Decker, Middletown Mayor Joseph DeStefano, and Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey joined officials from NAACP, ministers, families, students, organization members, residents, and the organizing Friends of Robert Lewis. Each speaker addressed the horror experienced by Robert Lewis 130-years ago last week.
Thursday, June 2, late afternoon, the bottom of Sussex Street hill -- the same setting as that in history; but for the nearly 200 assembled in 2022 – prayers, tears, and a pledge for kindness were carried in present-day actions.
The three mayors, two authors of recent books about the 1892 murder, a minister, student essayists, and others recalled the actions, feelings, and results of the long-ago day. While that tragic day in Port Jervis' history can never be undone, pledges were made to always remember, learn from, and never repeat such actions.
For anyone wishing to learn more about the details leading up to and surrounding Lewis' brutal murder, the recently released books share his tragic story in detail. It was a mob beating/lynching of a hard-working African American man who lived and worked in Port Jervis in the 1880s and 90s. On what would have been an otherwise ordinary day, this local man found himself accused of, but never arrested, tried, or convicted of, an allegation of rape; rape of a white woman. Instead of being taken in and questioned, as America's laws call for, Lewis was beaten and murdered by a hastily gathered mob of fellow citizens.
Retired Port Jervis Police Detective Michael Worden and Professor Phillip Dray, the authors of the recently released books, were among last week’s speakers. Worden, as he shared in his extensively researched book, spoke of Lewis’ brutal beating. He described how Lewis, hands tied behind his back, had been ripped from police custody. Kicked, beaten, and dragged up Sussex Street hill by a rope tied around around his neck, Lewis' excruciating last moments and breaths -- as hard as the images and words are to absorb -- are shared.
“They began dragging Robert Lewis past where we are standing now,” Worden said. “And not just dragging him but kicking and beating him, with hundreds pushing to get closer to him. Police officers were desperately trying to get him into the jail to save his life.”
Historical records retrieved by the authors place the mob procession up the hill, past churches, houses, and fellow citizens, with a still innocent man bloodied, almost naked, and dragged by a rope to his lynching, his last moments in life experienced as he hung from a limb of an East Main Street tree. This despite his quiet response that they simply had the wrong man.
“He was almost dead by the time he was just a block and half away from the jail,” Worden continued. “This speaks to the violence, brutality, and savage beating of Robert Lewis, even past several churches – houses of God – along the way.”
Lewis never had a chance to properly respond to accusations against him, or to have charges filed or heard by a jury as America's laws call for. He was hung from a Maple tree, now long-removed, on East Main Street. This is where a historic marker was unveiled on June 2, 2022, 130-years later to the day Lewis' life was taken.
Friends of Robert Lewis, a group formed and who hosted this and past anniversary remembrances, has worked diligently for awareness, education, and remembrance. One of the group’s founding members, Ralph Drake, wore a shirt with the handwritten words “I am Robert Lewis” on it.
As an eleven-year-old student, Drake first became aware of Robert Lewis’ murder while learning how to research and complete an essay assignment. He said what he learned from the topic he chose for his assignment has haunted him ever since.
“It became something prominent to me. I would walk to the locations, and the lynching spot. I interviewed people who were in their 80s when I was a kid, and they shared memories of what they knew happened to Robert Lewis when they were kids,” Drake said. “It was a collective evil that was suddenly applied, and once applied there was no stopping it.”
Drake said to him it seemed like one of the biggest things that had ever happened in the city, yet nobody ever talked about it. He and others are grateful today for the newly unveiled sign and awareness and education it is hoped to bring.
Robert Eurich, also an active organizer with Friends of Robert Lewis, is grateful for the partnership between his group, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul’s office, and Minisink Valley Historical Society in bringing the long sought after historical marker to Port Jervis, and for the community-building this effort created.
Community leaders, elected officials, citizens, organization members, historians, educators, parents, and children were among those involved in last week’s event. Each of those involved hope the team and individual participation and interest will continue to build better understanding and unity for all.
“We need to put ourselves in each other’s shoes to bring tragedies like this to an end. By putting Robert Lewis’ name out there and bringing awareness of his terrible and tragic death, we are able to pay tribute to him as well as serve as a reminder that when emotion overtakes a mob, tragedies like this can happen,” Eurich said. “We will continue to meet and work as a group for this understanding and compassion for each other.”