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A People's History of Florida 1513-1876

Book Excerpts
People's History

Chapter 13 Excerpt

In Reconstruction Florida, the Republican Party was far from unified. This was mostly because the two factions, radicals and conservatives, represented two opposing interests. The radical politicians were Northern opportunists, but sought to bring the large coalition of blacks and radical whites under its wing to secure political power in the state. It also sought to break the class system of the state and support the interests of poor white laborers as well. The moderate faction were also Northern opportunists, but backed the interests of Northern capitalists and Southern planters who desired black subservience to forward economic growth. For all the native whites bashed the conservative Federal military occupation as “radical,” the moderate Republicans appeased the Southern planters and accepted their commonly held notion that blacks should labor under white supervision. They equivocally endeavored to main white domination as the central aspect of Florida society. As they sought to economically propel the state, they understood that white capitalists would be at the forefront and required a disciplined, educated, and subservient black laboring class to do so. They never question basic assumptions of white power and land monopoly. They only wished to regulate some of the most dangerous “excesses” of white land monopoly, like the highly unequal terms of labor contracts. They wished to institute a state constitution that would create equality on the surface, but that took no measures to change the basic fundamentals of the exploitative system. Radical Republicans sought to create a revolution in Florida’s class structure, but one under their careful political guidance. As blacks were organizing and arming themselves before the dominance of the Republican Party, the enlistment of rank-and-file blacks in the party effectively transitioned their disposition for independent action to support for white leaders. The positions that radicals held were unacceptable to the white elite, and Federal military officers formed a coalition with conservatives to undermine their rise to political dominance. If it couldn’t be done democratically, than Federal officers would have to take extralegal precautions to prevent the will of the majority. 7 White landholders would even undermine their own profits if it meant that blacks remained politically subservient. While planters generally faulted their former slaves for ruining the cotton crop, the captain of a ship on the Oklawaha River told a Northern traveler that emancipation had greatly hindered the progress of hundreds of plantations along the river chiefly because “the planters did not wish to encourage more negroes to come into the country, as they were already so formidable a political element. Planters cannot work the broad acres without the very immigration which they dread, and so they suffer them to lie idle.” The Northern traveler, Edward King, made several other observations that contradicted the notions of Southern planters: that the majority of the state debt had been procured from “faith bonds” during the Antebellum period, not the Reconstruction administrations; that Northern migrants to the state were not “radicals” but mostly adopted conservative views; that the property-owner could fix his own valuation for taxes; that the school tax was very minimal and the largest obstruction to better public school system was the anxiety felt by Southern planters that their children could be compelled to attend mixed-race schools. 8

            A Northern booster observed that news of current events quickly spread among the ex-slaves, making their organization on political terms increasingly potent: “It is always something of an astonishment to find out how well posted these otherwise ignorant negroes are on political matters, local events, or any important occurrences; they seem to have a secret sort of freemasonry by which they learn everything going on.” 9 There was a political culture among ex-slaves that ensured they were informed on social issues that pertained to them: “In all their camps were individuals who did the reading and writing; read the newspapers aloud, read the letters received by their less intelligent companions, and wrote the letter and postal-card replies.” 10 Yet this did not worry the Northern booster because he knew that their political viewpoints meant nothing if they weren’t prepared to violently defend themselves: “Ignorant, but very cunning and unscrupulous, they would be a terribly dangerous element of society, were it not for their well-known fear of fire-arms, and their naturally peaceful disposition.” 11 Another Northern observer confirmed that whites were more comfortable with blacks voting than arming themselves: “He was given the right off suffrage; the only effective weapon that was safe to put into his hands for self-defense.” 12 Were the ex-slaves really predisposed to peaceful resistance? Radical Republican delegate Daniel Richards believed that equal suffrage was the most effective weapon to prevent a full-out race war while recognizing that equal distribution of guns was just as important. 13 In response to Klan violence, Richards reported that blacks were secretly organizing and arming themselves throughout the state. 14 A Florida booster noted that “As a rule, all negroes go armed; razors are their characteristic and especially favorite weapon; but they are very fond of revolvers also, and many of them carry one.” 15 Union military officials and leaders were mostly concerned with order and stability, even if “order” was to the detriment of justice and equality. “They have learned full well of the fiendish spirit that pursues them,” Richards reported on the blacks, “and were it not for the influence and control of the Union men over them they would, before this, have taken vengeance on these men who have deprived them of everything but life, and are now seeking to take that.” 16 In fact, the Union military occupation could be considered a force meant to protect the prejudiced and short-sighted southerners who couldn’t see a rebellion on their hands from outright repression of the ex-slaves. Richards goes further to the point where he called the Union men the “true friends” of white southerners for controlling and influencing a potential black insurrection:

They are seeking in all ways to take these creatures lives. A terrible retribution awaits them whenever the union people cease to be able to restrain these blacks. The Union men ought to be regarded as the true friends of the South for the blacks have confidence in them, and will be controlled by them. But if these rebels are allowed to control this state and administer the laws there is, pretty close ahead of us, serious trouble. Disenfranchisement, banishment, confiscation or almost anything would be merciful to these rebels themselves compared with giving them supreme controlling authority in all branches of the government here in the South.” 17

            The main duty of the Unionists was to “restrain the blacks from taking vengeance on these infernal rascals.” The rebels made it extremely difficult for the Unionists to “keep the blacks down and maintain order.” Richards believed that the blacks contained such strength and power that “at any time they can drive every rebel into the sea.” 18 The Federal military occupation only managed to saddle the storm. Lucius Douglass, an ex-slave from Jefferson County, recalled that organized blacks broke up Ku Klux Klan meetings: “De Ku Klux wasn’t in our county much. Anyhow, it didn’t live long. De colored people soon broke dat up, ‘least dey thought dey did. When dey would know where dar meetings would be at de colored people would gather and go dar and soon have de Ku Klux on de go.” 19 The Federal military issued an order to discontinue the nightly secret meetings of armed blacks in Middle Florida counties. 20 As whites pointed the finger at the radical Republicans for arming, organizing, and inciting the former slaves, Daniel Richards pointed out otherwise: “They tell Truman I am trying to organize and arm the blacks when the truth is they are nearly all armed, and I think pretty well organized, and were before I came here, and I have not spoken to more than half a dozen blacks since I came here nor have I spent half an hour in all, talking with them since I have been on this island.” 21 The three radical Republican delegates, Daniel Richards, Liberty Billings, and William Saunders, organized the Union League in Florida simply to transfer the energy of black organization in support of the Republican Party. They developed the grassroots support for the Republican Party by enlisting the rebellious freemen into numerous chapters and binding them into one compact political organization. 22 Richards claimed that the radicals were responsible for three-fourths of the Republican Party in Florida. 23 Richards’ report that Republican officials were mostly responsible for restraining the black population was confirmed by others. Most blacks did not insist as much as their leaders on non-violent resistance and reliance on the state for protection. Republican leader David Montgomery claimed: “The colored people will do pretty much what we tell them, because they believe we have done right.” He believed that his imposition had prevented his black followers from taking vengeance numerous times: “I think we have saved the town a half a dozen times from being destroyed.” 24 When Montgomery was hit by an assassin’s bullet one night, an armed band of blacks searched the town for him. When he didn’t turn up, they were prepared to burn down the town had they not found out that he was still alive. 25

            In 1867, mass meetings of former slaves were frequently held throughout the state. The freemen were quickly becoming impatient with the promises of freedom and the soothing rhetoric of Northern men who urged them to remain politically allied with their former masters. 26 On July 11, three hundred freemen angrily marched on Brooksville in protest. They were told that they would not get to pick delegates for the upcoming Republican Convention. A Freedmen’s Bureau agent William Vance reported: “I found the freedmen formed a company with armed with shot guns and muskets, they said they were told to come armed as the secessionists were not going to let them hold their meeting.” Vance told them to put their arms away, “and read to them the late orders of Col. Sprague in regard to the carrying of weapons.” 27 The black speakers of a political rally on April 12th had supposedly “indulged” in “intemperate and offensive language” but the real concern was that “their tendency was to excite ill-feeling” which meant to instill “difference in ideas of political duty” in their black constituents. 28 On April 20th, one of these meetings was held in the capital square at Tallahassee. Following several speeches from former slaveholders espousing their desire that the freemen achieve success but kneel to the overwhelming power of whites, Green Davidson, a black orator, questioned their logic in this matter: “The negroes had labored the last year under contracts, but when the year closed, instead of having hundreds of dollars in hand, they had nothing, but found themselves in debt…The white men may outnumber the negroes…but does it follow that all the white men will vote together? Will not some vote with the black men?” 29 A correspondent of a freemen’s meeting in Madison County described the atmosphere of these political rallies: “It mattered not after war and pestilence have desolated our land, and famine, the worst of the dreaded three, now staring us in the face, on this beautiful day and at this pressing time with planters, almost every farm in the county was deserted by the laborers who flocked in herds to the village…almost one hundred of whom were armed with double-barreled guns, old rifles, muskets, and swords.” This was a far cry from the Southern misrepresentation of the slave following the war as a passive Sambo or the Northern misrepresentation that Reconstruction was simply in the hands of “carpetbagger” politicians. Green Davidson once again educated the conservative white speakers at the convention: “These men have come here with their guns to show you they will protect me and themselves.” 30 The former slaves not only desired to socially, politically, and economically identify theirselves independent from their former master, but were prepared to protect theirselves if ex-slaveholders attempted to forcefully stop them. On the other hand, the Freedmen’s Bureau was willing to sacrifice mass black political involvement in order to ensure that blacks remained faithful laborers. At a large meeting of blacks in Lake City, the local Freedmen’s Bureau Agent advised them to send representative delegates to political rallies as it was “unprofitable” for them to attend in mass. 31

2009 Adam Wasserman

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