Have you heard of Emma Hill, or perhaps Emma Hill Stewart? The 17-year-old girl’s name came up during a recent tour of 22nd Street South, conducted by St. Petersburg Preservation Inc. Ms. Hill was shot to death on May 26, 1924 during a raid by a county posse led by a deputy sheriff.
Her story is little known to history, though at the time, the incident was published on the front page of the Evening Independent, St. Petersburg’s afternoon newspaper. There was no investigation into the circumstances of her death and the article did not describe her other than to refer to her as a “negress.” A headline on the newspaper article named her as Emma Stewart, but the article itself referred to her as Emma Hill.
About 60 people on the tour learned about the girl from Gwen Reese, a tour leader and chair of the city’s African American Heritage Association. The tour started at the Carter G. Woodson Museum of African American History and lasted about 90 minutes. It included stops near the Manhattan Casino and Mercy Hospital and on the steps of the Royal Theater.
Tour guides also told stories about the history and lore of 22nd Street when it was the heart and soul of St. Petersburg’s African-American community. The tour also included a walk-through of the old Harden Grocery, which is being renovated by Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy.
The story of Emma Hill surfaced during research for the African American Heritage Trail, and the tale gained rapt attention as it was told. The shooting took place during a time when 22nd Street was just beginning to grow. It was still thought of as “out in the country.” There were some residences and a few businesses, but at the time, the Manhattan Casino and Jordan Elementary had yet to open. Mercy Hospital was about a year old.
An intended raid on a purported gambling house was advanced by Sheriff W.S. Lindsey as the episode that led to more than 20 shots fired at a car said to be a Cadillac carrying seven or eight passengers. The circumstances as described in the newspaper article were not clear. But the car apparently pulled onto 22nd Street about 300 yards from the gambling house. Deputies said several people had escaped from the house, which was between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The car was said to have sped past deputies, and that someone in it fired a shot.
That was when deputies opened fire.
The bullets punctured the gas tank in several places and tore up the back seats. Ms. Hill had been sitting in a small chair in the middle of the car. One of the bullets hit her in the head, and she apparently died immediately. A coroner’s jury said it could not determine who fired the fatal shot.
Passengers in the car denied shooting at deputies. During this era of strict segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, it was not unusual for white law enforcement officers or citizens to injure or kill African Americans suspected of crimes or accused of breaking racial codes.
St. Petersburg’s most infamous example occurred 100 years ago in 1914, when John Evans was lynched and his body riddled with bullets on Ninth Street South. Ms. Hill should be remembered on one of the historical markers to be installed on 22nd Street, said heritage project chair Reese.