Another protest march was held Thursday evening in Fernandina Beach, the second one in a week. Nationwide protests calling for police and justice reform have followed the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25.
Some protests in the U.S. have turned into violent clashes with law enforcement and outside agitators, but there have been no incidents reported related to the two marches in the city. The first march was Monday night. Both marches were peaceful and received an escort by the Fernandina Beach Police Department. Chief James Hurley said the marchers were “a mostly young crowd, very well behaved.”
Wilson Turcios Membreño is a manager at Pepper's Cocina Mexicana & Tequila Bar on Centre Street and watched the Thursday march from the restaurant.
“The marchers were very peaceful,” Membreño told the News-Leader.“They were respectful. The police with them were very nice. I told my employees that we are in a great town and there is nothing to be afraid of. We were not scared at all.”
Bailey Marquess was working at Amelia Tavern as she watched the march through the city’s downtown district. She said marchers were well behaved and “100% peaceful.”
“They were chanting and very peaceful,” Marquess said. “The police were with them, it was great.”
One of the people marching Thursday was Wendall McGahee, a 25-year-old African American man with deep roots in the Fernandina Beach community. He spoke to the News-Leader about his experience growing up black in the city.
“My heritage gave me the push to take action,” McGahee said. “At first, I thought that marching, historically, has gotten us nowhere, but I take great pride in my heritage and I try to do my part.”
McGahee’s ancestors were slaves in St. Marys, Ga. and are buried in Bosque Bello Cemetery. His family, the Delaneys, once had a farm in Old Town. Family members were shrimp net makers and active in the community. His grandmother’s cousin, Charles Albert, was the first black mayor of Fernandina Beach.
His grandparents graduated from Peck High School, which was for African American students only. His mother also attended the school and saw the integration of the Nassau County School system. A 2013 graduate of Fernandina Beach High School, McGahee said he was one of about 20 black students in a class of 250, which created a small, tight-knit support group.
While the community is, by and large, harmonious, the vestiges of segregation are still part of the fabric.
“We still have two Fernandinas,” McGahee said. “There is the Atlantic Rec Center, which is where white people go, and the MLK Center, where black people go. There is a white funeral home and a black funeral home. This is real, and people don’t realize it.”
McGahee tells a story about one of his family members who was killed at a Fernandina Beach paper mill in the 1950s, saying the ambulance drivers “would not touch him” but wrapped his body in newspapers.
“There are people alive who witnessed these things,” he said.
McGahee says it is easy to believe in a small community like Fernandina Beach that there aren’t racial issues since not everyone is exposed to racial discrimination. “Younger people need to understand that just because people aren’t marching around in hoods anymore doesn’t mean hate groups don’t exist,” he added.
McGahee remembers racial slurs being painted on the walls of the high school when he was attending there and nooses being hung from trees in other parts of the county.
“When Obama was elected, I remember a student making a joke like, ‘Just because we have a black man in the White House doesn’t mean we want one in our school,’” McGahee said. “I guess he thought it was funny, but I certainly did not.”
He said Fernandina Beach has financial as well as racial inequities, and the issues are prominent: “There are well-off white people and lower-income white people, as well as black people, but at the end of the day, the well-off white person will always come before the black person.”
He added that gentrification and its effect on affordable housing is one example of the inequity.
“There is nowhere for us (to live). We can’t afford it,” he said. “You are weeding us out, and it’s only getting worse.”
McGahee hopes the marches taking place will help bring about change.
“Rioting is what happens when you turn a deaf ear to people,” he said. “Marching downtown is great, but this needs to be ongoing and constant. Something needs to happen. We want change, but will it ever really come?”