Pioneers of Resistance

Dianne Feeley

Emancipation Betrayed
The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920
By Paul Ortiz
Berkeley: University of California Press, 200. Hardback: $27.50; paper: $16.95.

EMANCIPATION BETRAYED ATTEMPTS to fill in the historical gap between the end of Reconstruction and the post-World War I period through examining Black organizing in the state of Florida. The author, Paul Ortiz, worked on oral histories for the study “Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South” at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. His research peeled back a lineage of struggle several generations long, connecting the post-World War II civil rights movement to how African Americans dealt with the reimposition of anti-Black laws following the collapse of Reconstruction:

“This is a study about how people resist oppression and create new social movements. The Florida movement shows what an organized group of individuals can accomplish in the face of violence, discrimination, and economic misery.” (xvii)

Ortiz challenges the “conventional” historiography that presents the post-World War II successful challenge to Jim Crow legislation as an “awakening” of the Black population. He also focuses not on those who come north during the Black migration beginning during World War I, but those who stay behind. Clearly, then, these are not the “New Negroes” extolled in literature about the Harlem Renaissance (and in fact Ortiz disputes the term).

Although most of the Floridians the author discusses are not names we are familiar with, a surprising number did become nationally known African Americans. These include A. Philip Randolph (Crescent City), Zora Neale Hurston (Eatonville), James Weldon Johnson (Jacksonville) and Mary McLeod Bethune (Daytona).

The period following the fall of Reconstruction can be characterized by struggles against the imposition of legal segregation. The legacy of Mississippi-born Ida B. Wells and her fight to mobilize against Jim Crow and lynching is more widely known than the story Ortiz tells about Florida. In fact he subtitles the account “The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.”

Ortiz points out that Florida boasted the highest per capital lynching rate in the country. Once Florida had been “redeemed” by the Democratic Party in 1876, every available weapon “including terror, murder, fraud and statute” (xiv) was employed to disenfranchise African Americans. This was a necessary step for the white business establishment to limit the ability of the Black community to labor on their own land or seek higher-wage work.

A variety of repressive legislation was passed, including vagrancy statutes, “after dark” laws (preventing sharecroppers from selling produce at night) and “anti-enticement” codes that restrained workers from quitting. Sheriffs received generous bounties for providing African-American convicts in the turpentine and timber fields, phosphate mines and road construction. As Ortiz reports, “by 1910 Florida had the highest incarceration rate of prisoners and juveniles in the Deep South.” (54)

Henry M. Flagler, John Rockefeller’s business partner, built his – and Florida’s – economic empire through consolidating the railroad, extending it from Jacksonville all the way through the Keys. His “Key West Extension” was considered an important engineering feat. Ortiz reports that Black convict laborers first graded it in the late 19th century. New immigrants extended it in the early 20th century from the Caribbean, under conditions of debt peonage. (56)

The Defeat of Reconstruction

Following the Civil War, African Americans in Florida sought to win landownership – a distinct possibility given that Florida had twice as much public land as any other southern state. They also believed in the necessity of a strong, state-supported educational system. First-hand reports convey the eagerness of Black workers to gain education for themselves and their children.

Yet during Reconstruction the African-American population represented only 20% of the Florida population. Their legislators were never able to forge a majority coalition in the legislature. As a result, successive legislatures sold off public lands to syndicates and railroads.

Ortiz concludes that Conservative Democrats saw Black education as dangerous because “it led to bad work habits and high taxes.” He perceptively remarks “The code phrase ‘getting tired of paying taxes’ became a way of talking about race without mentioning race itself.” (22)

Even during Reconstruction whites used violence against African Americans who attempted to secure their rights. Between 1868-71 in Jackson County alone, 153 Black Floridians were assassinated. Employers formed a club to enforce a “Black List,” which targeted political activists, including 10% of the work force.

Despite intimidation, thousands of African Americans voted in the 1876 presidential election, casting their ballots for Rutherford B. Hayes, thus providing the Republican Party with a victory in the overall electoral vote.

By claiming Florida’s contested electoral votes, the party then worked out with the Democratic Party the “Great Compromise.” In exchange for allowing the Republican Party victory, the Democrats won the withdrawal of federal support for Reconstruction, and the troops were withdrawn from the South. In this fashion, the votes of Black Floridians became the means by which the Republican Party arranged their betrayal.

Organizing in the Crevices

Over the next two decades African Americans struggled against the attempt to deny their right to vote and to seek better wages and working conditions. They attempted to build an interracial independent party (1884), organized unions and armed themselves for self- defense. Most impressive is the organization of dockworkers, warehousemen and tobacco factory workers in Pensacola, Key West and Jacksonville. As members of the Knights of Labor they led a series of strikes within a biracial coalition of Black and white locals.

Ortiz recounts the 1887 strike of longshoremen and Black fertilizer factory workers in Pensacola, which included a biracial march of over 1,000 Black and white longshoremen to present a resolution to businessmen David Lear and John Ward. Although the Pensacola police and state national guard were deployed, with the guard escorting a group of strikebreakers, and although a Black minister and city council member also tried to escort strikebreakers, the interracial picket line held and the employers capitulated. (46-48)

Other attempts at interracial unity did not survive the force the state government was able to bring to bear. The most important strike of the period, the 1890 Apalachicoloa general strike for the 10-hour day, collective bargaining rights, and the right not to be paid in script but in real money was broken by martial law, repression and arrest. This time the failure was not a divide between Black and white workers, but a class divide within the African-American community.

Additionally Ortiz recounts the story of an unemployed movement in Jacksonville during this same period. In 1886 a reform slate of candidates from the Republican Party and the Knights of Labor won office. Two years later this coalition was boosted by a “get out the vote” campaign organized by African-American women. That is, even though they were unable to vote, the women were active participants.

Shortly afterwards the city government was faced with a devastating yellow fever epidemic. A special Committee on Sanitation was created to carry out cleanup projects and administer public work relief to the unemployed workers, who were largely African American.

When city officials, citing budget constraints, cut the program in half unemployed workers and their families organized a three-pronged campaign: They organized continuous public demonstrations, assembled nightly to formulate strategy, and chose representatives to present their demands. They won their jobs back but set off alarm bells throughout the state.

Conservative Democrats were determined to nip this expression of democracy in the bud. They revoked city charters in three cities “with African American labor movements, periodic interracial coalitions, and high black voter turnout.” (50-53)

History as Emancipation

“History was one of Jim Crow’s fiercest battlegrounds. African Americans invoked memories of slavery and Civil War to emphasize their claims on citizenship while white Americans used history to show that African Americans had done nothing to earn a stake in the society.” (85)

The history recounted by Conservative Democrats includes monuments to slaveholders and the Confederacy. A typical Florida textbook described the ex-slaves:

“Many of the Negroes loved their old master and stayed on the old plantations, but others wandered away. Some thought that because they were free they would never need to work any more, so they dressed up in their best clothes and went to picnics and had a good time.” (Quoted, 85)

For the Conservative Democrats, Reconstruction is a period in which ignorance is enthroned and the Ku Klux Klan is born to redeem Anglo-Saxon civilization. Blacks are only “civilized” insofar as they are “helped up by association with the white man.”

In contrast, Ortiz points out, African Americans honored slavery’s survivors, their right to citizenship and the egalitarianism of Reconstruction. Celebrating Emancipation Day began in 1863. Key West African Americans organized a massive celebration and invited Sandy Cornish to be their keynote speaker. Cornish was a legendary figure on the island because he had physically mutilated himself decades earlier to avoid being sold back into slavery.

Throughout the years Emancipation Day ceremonies featured speakers who recalled slavery, the role African Americans played in the Civil War and Reconstruction, and raised demands to end segregation or put forward the principle of compensation for slavery. The day might include a parade, skit, songs, and a shared meal. It was a vivid history lesson that provided examples of Black accomplishment against all odds.

Through organizing events African-American elders attempted to teach individual dignity and Black pride. Even in the depths of segregation they established a “testimonial culture.” Various communities celebrated Decoration Day (Veterans Day) by holding memorial services that emphasized Black loyalty to the cause of the republic and to smashing the bonds of slavery.

The town of Fernandina created a “Fifteenth Amendment Day” to celebrate the law that formally guaranteed the voting rights of ex-slaves. Other cities held remembrances days for William Lloyd Garrison’s centenary and Frederick Douglass’ birthday. Ortiz points out that the stories of the Black community’s suffering, heroism and endurance did not merely add to the historical record, but “they believed that their experiences in slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction changed the meaning of the nation’s history altogether.” (100)

These African-American Floridians cited this history as the basis for their right to equal citizenship.

Secret Societies and Survival

Like most poor communities, African Americans needed to band together in some form of mutual aid that could combine economic survival in times of sickness or unemployment and some form of burial fund. Labor unions, churches, and secret societies of activists opposing segregation and discrimination were critical to Florida’s Black community.

Organized during Reconstruction, the Colored Knights of Pythias and their sister organization, the Courts of Calanthe, became a powerful secret organization. By 1920 one out of every six adult Black males in Florida was affiliated with the order. The Knights pledge explained its mission to “destroy caste and color prejudice; to relieve the needs and afford succor to a brother; to elevate man to a higher plane of intelligence, morality and social equality; to administer to the sick and suffering.” (116)

The organization’s manual emphasized the importance of democratic debate and a secret ballot to allow each individual the right to express his opinion. This gave them a collective self-confidence to oppose the growing imposition of Jim Crow practices.

Between the late 1890s and 1910 almost every major Southern city imposed streetcar segregation. What made this practice particularly outrageous is that streetcar conductors enjoyed full police power. They had the right to order Black riders around, humiliating and even arresting them.

African Americans launched protests against this practice in a number of cities, including Pensacola, Jacksonville and Tampa. In Jacksonville women led the protests and the Hackmen’s Union organized alternative transportation so that the boycott could be carried out.

These open challenges to white supremacy could only have occurred through a network of organizations. They stunned Democratic Party politicians and in some cases were successful in defeating laws and practices. Ortiz is careful not to claim that these protests were able to reverse the political climate, but mutual aid societies allowed African Americans to survive segregation.

A New Beginning

As World War I dried up immigration from Europe and wartime labor shortages mounted, labor agents came south to recruit workers. Thousands of Floridian African Americans went north, determined to find not just higher wages but a better life.

Growers and state officials attempted to curtail this crucial loss of cheap labor. In 1916 a state law requiring a $500 licensing fee for labor agents (originally passed in 1903) was raised to $1,000 and $2,000 the following year.

Police in several areas attempted to prevent Blacks from leaving, attacking them at railroad depots. Governor Sidney Catts admonished an African-American audience that “The colored people…should live in the warm climates and where they leave and try to live in cold climates they are going against destiny.” (135-6)

But these methods did not halt migration.

When the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce called an interracial conference to confront the exodus, they found some African-American “leaders” willing to issue a “Words of Advice” statement in support of staying. Although these leaders pointed out that wages were too low in Florida, they offered the platitude that “wages should be commensurate” with the service required but demanded nothing.

Black labor leaders attacked the “Words of Advice,” pointing out that the “leaders” were hand picked by the businessmen. Instead, they demanded that “all labor troubles or controversies should be submitted to labor organizations.” (Quoted, 138)

By the end of 1916, 12,000 African Americans had left Florida. This migration undermined Florida’s “ability to guarantee a pool of impoverished, low-wage labor.” (139) The African Americans who stayed gained more confidence in making political and economic demands.

Added to this dynamic development, Ortiz then recounts the role African Americans played during World War I. Composing 30% of the population, Black Floridians provided over half of the state’s soldiers. The African-American community supported Liberty Loan drives and held “encouragement meetings” to celebrate the community’s success and to stimulate further effort.

They believed World War I was a war to further democracy and felt their sacrifice would be rewarded. Instead it was belittled or ignored. Nonetheless when the troops returned at the war’s end, Black communities across Florida welcomed them with massive ceremonies.  Like it or not, the political establishment was faced once again by the African-American community’s demand for equal rights, including the end to lynching and the right to vote.

Emancipation Betrayed’s final two chapters outline how, in Florida, the Black community organized for the 1920 presidential election. Three factors gave them greater confidence: the value they placed on their ability to bargain following the “Great Migration;” the experience of the returning Black soldiers, whose valor ought to be honored with a recognition of the community’s right to full citizenship; and the fact that women, including African-American women, had just won suffrage.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party was determined to beat back this challenge to white supremacy. They used a variety of tactics, including challenging Black voters, in order to intimidate and suppress Black votes. Three to four thousand were turned away from the polls in Jacksonville alone.

White vigilantes marched in several cities just before Election Day and organized a campaign of terror The NAACP estimated that between 30-60 Black Floridians were murdered on Election Day. Scores more were wounded and hundreds became political refugees. Black fraternal lodges in three counties were destroyed.

Ortiz asks why did so many Blacks seem to lose their fear of the KKK? His answer:

“The Florida movement created among African Americans a new sense of possibility that was grafted on to the survival strategies that had carried them through forty bitter years of disfranchisement. This is a key to understanding why African Americans would fight against such prohibitive odds. The people who were willing to risk their lives in the Florida election of 1920 did not do so for an idea; they risked their lives for each other.” (217)

Florida African Americans painstakingly gathered together proof of voting discrimination for the NAACP. They believed the evidence would show that southern elected officials had violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments by creating one standard for white registration and another for African Americans.

The punishment should have been to reduce the representation of the states where discrimination occurred. But Census Committee members insulted NAACP representatives and treated testimony from white supremists with great respect. The Florida election was judged to have been clean as a whistle.

The author remarks that the Florida movement was defeated not so much by the Klu Klux Klan as by a combination of municipal, state and federal authorities as well as by President-elect Warren G. Harding, who put his stamp of approval on the election while refusing NAACP requests and taking a pre-inaugural vacation in Florida.

Just as those who had fought in the Civil War and those who had held elected office during Reconstruction were involved in the subsequent fight to oppose segregation, Paul Ortiz points out in his concluding chapter that although the Florida movement suffered a defeat in 1920 some of its activists and even some of its tactics would reemerge to form the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

The movement didn’t die in the 1920s, but reorganized. By the end of the 1920s the Pensacola NAACP chapter boosted 1,500 voters and by 1934 there was a vibrant NAACP chapter in Brevard County. Ortiz mentions that its lead organizer was Harry T. Moore, who had been a high school student in 1920, at the height of the voter registration movement. Moore went on to help the NAACP spearhead a statewide voter registration campaign in the 1940s. *

Ortiz concludes that the defeat of the Florida movement in 1920 was a victory for white supremacy, prolonging one-party rule and Jim Crow four more decades. But it provided the African-American community in Florida with a vision not only of the need for social justice but also an understanding of how their local struggle fit into the political system nationally. In his closing Ortiz remarks:

“The movement gave its participants the confidence to think large and plan boldly to address the gravest social problems of their time. African Americans drew on personal ties of mutuality to create a politics that embraced the needs of ordinary people. This is the true genius of the Florida movement of 1919-1920. Black Floridians assumed that all people deserved dignity, and because of this their definition of democracy grew to become an expansive and sophisticated statement of human possibility. The only way to honor their prodigious sacrifices is to carry on the struggle.” (236)

*In Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement, Barbara Ransby describes Moore as “steadfast organizer” who coordinated statewide NAACP branches and spearheaded a campaign to equalize the salary of Black and white teachers. He and his wife were murdered Christmas 1951 when dynamite was thrown under their house. His name continues to surface in newspaper accounts about the beginnings of the post-World War II civil rights movement.

ATC 123, July-August 2006