Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Florida History

By Douglas C. Lyons

A few years back during my stint as an editorial writer covering the Florida Legislature, a state senator and I were discussing black politics in the state.

The senator, then a member of Miami-Dade County delegation, had a pretty grim assessment about black Floridians living in the Panhandle region.

“Black folk living west of Tallahassee are catching hell,” he said.

I could only nod. My experiences of Florida’s black communities primarily centered around the southern and central parts of the state. At the time, I had never been west of Gadsden County, which borders the Tallahassee area. What little I saw in that county wasn’t exactly idyllic.

Years later, as I turn the pages of the book, Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980 that long-ago conversation in the state capitol office came back in a rush. J. Michael Butler’s book is a brutal assessment of the David-vs.-Goliath struggle in Florida’s Panhandle region. It’s confrontation pitting local black leadership against the overwhelming dominance of the region’s white power structure.

In this case, though, David had no stone, no slingshot and no real help.

The story follows the work of Rev. H.K. Matthews, a local pastor in Pensacola and at the time president the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It starts at a gathering of 500 black residents at the sheriff’s department to protest the police shooting of a black teenager. Despite evidence to the contrary, a grand jury declared the incident ‘justifiable homicide.”

The protest, like the others organized to decry the marginalization of Pensacola’s black residents, had the typical singing of hymns, prayers and chants, including this one led by Matthews: “Two, four, six, eight, who  shall we incarcerate?”

The words were followed by the names of the town’s white civic leaders, including the county sheriff, Royal Untreiner. Usually, the chants would go unanswered by the police presence. This time, however, the response was swift.

Matthews was arrested and later charged with felony extortion. The case went to trial, where an all-white jury heard officers testify that Matthews had said “assassinate” instead of “incarcerate.” The jury found Matthews guilty and a judge ultimately sentenced the minister to five years hard labor.

The rest of the book tells a panful story of a black community’s attempts to overcome daunting odds to achieve some semblance of equality and justice. It’s not pretty. There is no happy ending here.

There are riots at area high schools over symbols of white supremacy. Black leaders get co-opted by the white establishment, and the few gains that do occur are undermined by entrenched local and state politicians.  While Matthews boldly boldly represents the SCLC, he gets little help from his national office, or the NAACP. The fight for civil rights in the Florida Panhandle pales in comparison to the groups’ struggles to remain relevant nationally as civil-right organizations.

To paraphrase that earlier conversation: “Black folk … are catching hell.”

The book is a must read for anyone who is serious about black and white relations in Florida and today’s ongoing struggle of race and social inequality. The book’s general conclusion best describes its overall significance.

“The lessons of the Escambia County movement transcend local, state and even regional context. The story of racial power, privilege, change and continuity is not this community’s alone, for others throughout the United States encountered similar conflicts.” 

To better understand the current racial unrest still smoldering in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., or New Orleans,  consider this read of Pensacola’s past.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Deion Sanders Knows the Power of Dreams

“If your dream ain’t bigger than you, there’s a problem with your dream.”

Deion Sanders, Major League Baseball and National Football League superstar, sports broadcaster and Florida native.

The ‘So-What?! Significance: This is certainly not the day to doubt yourself. America was founded on a hardcore belief — a dream that became a world superpower. What worked for a nation started with a dream among individuals.

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going With This ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’ Now?

Entering Rosewwod

Mark your calendars. We’re coming up on the third stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour.” We’ve already visited Delray Beach and Rosewood. Where to next? Be here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, July 6th to see our next destination. Check out our trip through Florida’s Black History. You’ll enjoy the ride and might even learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Moni3@English Wikipedia

Rosewood Marks the Second Stop of the ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

ROSEWOOD — Drive too fast and you’ll miss it. The name may exist on a map as a dot along State Road 24 just northwest of Cedar Key. In real life, however, it’s a stretch of two-lane highway surrounded by fields. Off to the side is the historic marker that tells the tale of death, humiliation and restoration.

In the 1920s,  Rosewood was a small black settlement in Levy County. Many of the residents built and owned their homes, and the community contained several businesses, churches and a Masonic Lodge. Life was good. Well, as good as any poor group of residents who endured the post-slavery mores of white southern society in the early 20th century.

On January 1, 1923, the Rosewood community came to an end. A white woman in nearby Sumner accused a black man of rape. What followed next was the gathering of an angry mob of white men that descended on Rosewood. They drove its residents into the nearby woods, burned the community and killed five black residents in the process. Those blacks who survived took a vow of silence and never returned. The shame of the devastation remained for decades.

If this story is beginning to sound familiar, you’re probably old enough to remember the movie. Rosewood hit the big screen in 1997, starring Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Esther Rolle and Jon Voight. (For all you Guardians of the Galaxy and Walking Dead fans, the actor Michael Rooker played Sheriff Walker in Rosewood.)  The film pretty much adhered to the tragic events that resulted in the complete destruction of Rosewood.

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

Entering Rosewood

In 1994, several survivors of the Rosewood families filed a claims bill in the Florida Legislature, and ultimately a Special Master appointed by the Florida Speaker of the House ruled that the state had a “moral obligation” to compensate the survivors for mental anguish, property loss and the violation of their constitutional rights. On May 4, 1994, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a $2.1 million compensation bill, which gave nine survivors $150,000 each and established a college scholarship and a separate fund to compensate descendants who could prove property loss.

The Historic Marker was dedicated by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004.

The next destination on our Florida Black Historic Marker Tour tells a another remarkable story of state history. Check back to see where we end up next.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

Accessibility: This trip takes planning. Rosewood, Fla. is roughly an hour’s drive out of Gainesville and amounts to an eye-blink along State Road 24. Take SR 24 south from Gainesville for 49 miles before reaching Rosewood.

Area Attractions: Make a day trip out of the Rosewood visit and drive to the end of SR 24 into Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico. Cedar Key is Florida’s second oldest city. It’s a fishing, and artist village that moves at a slow pace befitting a small coastal community. Fewer than 1,000 residents live there permanently, and the main drag runs less than four blocks.

You won’t find any fast food establishments, Starbucks or a Walmart Superstore. Think boating tours, fishing charters, a museum, a wildlife refugee and some unique bars, galleries and restaurants. Hotel lodging is available, but may be hard to find on peak holidays and during the height of tourist season.

Photo Credits: Doris T. Harrell, State Library & Archives of Florida and Moni3@ English Wikipedia.

Was James Weldon Johnson a Little Bit ‘Bougie?’

“As I look back now, I can see that I was a perfect little aristocrat.”

James Weldon Johnson, author, educator, civil rights activist and Florida native.

The ‘So-What?!’ Significance: None needed. James Weldon Johnson was aristocratic as a bona-fide member of The Talented Tenth.

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going Next with the ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’?

Mark your calendars. The second stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” summertime road trip is coming up soon. Check back here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, June 22 to see our next black historic destination.  Check it out. You’ll enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Douglas C. Lyons

 

A Father’s Advice on Race

“Perhaps realizing the substance of his legacy, William [Sawyer] did not pass without giving his son Bill, principal heir to his fortune, a last important lesson. ‘When my daddy was dying,’ the younger Sawyer recalled, ‘ he had me come in and gave me a long talk. He said, ‘Bill, try to be careful as you can with your developments and your monies and stuff like that because you are a nigger, and I want you to know that for the foreseeable future you are going to be a nigger.’

For a long time, Bill concluded, ‘I found that to be true.’

Sources: Bill Sawyer, Interviewed by Stephanie Wanza, August 25, 1997, 3, 59, Tell the Story Collection BA; and A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, by N.D.B. Connolly The University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 165

Racism in Florida’s Panhandle Fueled Early Black Resistance

“Due to the outbreak of World War I, the promise of employment opportunities sparked another wave of rural migration to Pensacola. White newcomers outnumbered African Americans and accepted jobs considered undesirable a few years earlier. Only menial labor or domestic positions remained open to blacks, and 60 percent of Escambia County African Americans had no jobs at the decade’s end. Many simply left the area during the Great Migration in search for employment in the North, and white supremacy continued to permeate Northwest Florida. Throughout the decade, the Pensacola News Journal glorified the Confederacy, justified white supremacy, published cartoons and editorials that negatively stereotyped blacks, supported the Ku Klux Klan and sensationalized crimes that blacks allegedly committed.

Some African Americans responded to the increased anxiety by joining the Pensacola chapter of the NAACP, which was formed on June 15, 1919. It was Florida’s second local branch, and it enrolled seventy-three members in its first year of existence.”

Source: Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, 1960-1980 By J. Michael Butler The University of North Carolina Press, 2016 p. 21