In the past three years I’ve picked up a super power. I have the amazing ability to connect almost anything that is happening in the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, with something that happened in Florida’s history. And I mean Florida’s actual history; not the stuff we were taught in school.
Take our history with lynching for example. During the early part of the 20th century Florida saw a huge number of lynchings; both fatal and non fatal. The KKK were out of control in deed…and in control of state and local politics. But did you ever wonder how it got that way? You should, because it’s kind of important.
Florida’s “official” history reads schizophrenicly. We first show up in European history as a dangly bit of land hanging out between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean that was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492-ish. Then we mention Ponce deLeon. Then we skip a few centuries worth of history. We lie about how Florida was obtained. Then we gloss over the Civil War. Then we start really talking about things when we get to the part where a bunch of rich white Americans, like Henry Flagler, start doing things. We do touch on the Seminoles; but only so we can ooh and aah over all the parts of their culture we have shamelessly appropriated. Then we gloss over a bunch of other stuff and pretend we’ve learned our history.
But it turns out that those centuries we skip between Ponce and Flagler, and the ones we gloss over later, were really, REALLY, important to understanding the history of Florida, and the rest of the country.
Like, did you know that all of the biggest slave uprisings in what we now call the United States can be directly attributed to Florida? Or that Florida was one of the Underground Railroad’s destinations?
Until 1790 any bonded servant that escaped from the north and came to Florida would be freed. After the 1790 repeal of the sanctuary policy, bonded servants still came to Florida, they just joined the Seminoles instead of getting the legal sanctuary. Florida was also home to two, black controlled, military outposts and all kinds of small free black settlements. Florida’s frontier guards included black cavalry that pre-dates the Buffalo Soldiers by more than 100 years.
Did you know the people of Florida hated the American version of slavery so much that they fought against US takeover for seven years; and then continued to fight it for another 100 years after that?
This is the history of my state, and my family, that I study. This is what my blog is full of. I’m completely obsessed with this stuff.
Learning about it all helped me open my eyes to the bigger picture.
The US took over Florida in the 1820’s; but it takes almost a century of racist violence, terrorism–and a constant flood of white supremacists moving into the state–before it is finally beaten into that bastion of racism we all know and love today.
The accepted Florida history narrative is full of either white saviors or rich white people. There is very little representing the varied colors and cultures that made up Florida before statehood. And even less documenting the victories many free people of color were able to obtain during those 100 years.
Accepted narratives about the transition between Spanish Colony and US state are always surprised that free people of color, and even slaves, knew how to utilize the legal system. It was even lamented in the newspaper editorials of the time that Florida seemed overrun with free people of color who wanted to go into politics instead of field labor.
This situation wasn’t nearly as surprising to long time Floridians. Spain used a less worse version of slavery than the US…not better, only less worse. Everyone had a legal voice under the Spanish…to varying degrees. The most well known examples of bonded servants exercising these rights shows up in the histories of Dr. Andrew Turnbull and Lord Denys Rolle. In both cases their bondsmen brought their cases for neglect, abuse, and forced starvation to the authorities. And in both cases, the men lost their bondsmen. And don’t make the mistake of assuming that because these people had lighter skin they were treated better. Don’t be fooled by them being historically known as “indentured servants” instead of slaves. Several of the families who came with Denys Rolle were refugees from India, Africa, and the middle east, that he picked up in London. And the crude term used for the Mediterraneans who came with Turnbull were “Turnbull’s darkies” or “Turnbull’s niggers”. (Many of these people will later go to violent extremes to separate themselves from the stigma of having been bonds-persons; but that’s another story entirely.)
Under Spain, slaves were conscripted to help guard the frontier. Yes, you read that right: Spain freely gave slaves guns. So what stopped slaves from just taking those guns and turning them on their captors? Well, for one thing, military service was a fast track to being granted freedom without having to purchase it. A day’s skirmishing could accomplish what it normally took years to obtain. For another, slaves were allowed to have guns anyway. How else were they going hunt?
In addition, there was a faction of Spanish elite who were so lenient with their slaves they were often mistaken for abolitionists. These were guys who did weird things like freeing the enslaved women they had children with and providing for the women and their children. These men also advocated keeping enslaved families together and allowing slaves to keep their cultural and religious practices. They also employed the “task system” as opposed to the American “gang system”; which meant slaves had a task to complete by a certain time, usually around 2 in the afternoon, and were given the rest of the day to themselves. They also left trusted slaves in charge of their plantations and other business affairs when they were absent.
Not to mention that Florida ends up being home to one of the Haitian Revolutionaries, Georges Biassou…who leads one of the aforementioned militias, and whose men are the bulk of forces fighting off the Americans during the 1812-1819 conflict.
Florida’s multi-cultural history has opened my eyes to an entirely different view of my state; and my own family. Once you learn the history of the state, you discover that Florida is a state because of people of color.
I started studying it when I found out that one of my earliest Floridian ancestors was a slave named Flora, who was the mother of a slave named James, whose daughter was a free black woman who helped start a new county in Florida in the 1840’s. I discovered the seeming fairy tale of Flora being purchased and freed by the wealthy white man who fathered her children. He bought her a house, working land, and provided a comfortable life for her and their children.
I thought this was something that was completely rare and unusual. Turned out, Florida’s history was actually pretty well stocked with similarly created families. And these weren’t secret families either, they were fully recognized for who they were. From 1812-1819, members of these families were part of the free black militias who fought off the US invasion of the Spanish colony. Between the 1820’s-1840’s they took their fight to the legal arena and won several victories. They even had a racist head tax repealed for a few years.
These victories created an insane level of anger and resentment. American Floridians did everything they could to forced these uppity black folks into their “proper place”. The violence and brutality Americans used against people of color is evident in events like Andrew Jackson’s decimation of what was known as the “Negro Fort”; and in the Civil War’s Battle of Olustee.
During Reconstruction, this hate and resentment just keeps getting stronger. After Reconstruction ends, the KKK, and their political cronies, just continues to make things even worse for…well…to this day.
Florida’s early history shows how hard people of color were already fighting against the racist policies America.
So why wouldn’t we teach this?
I bet you can figure it out if you think about it.
I linked my Goodreads account to my blog; the books that make up my research are listed there.