Opinion: The perpetrators write history

By JONATHAN P. BAIRD

Published: 08-21-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

In his book, “How The Word Is Passed,” the writer Clint Smith says that the history of the United States is the history of slavery. It was central to our American story. Of course, in my own educational experience, that was not the case.

Smith talks about gaps in how the slavery story has been told. I went to a very good school growing up in the Philadelphia area and from the curriculum, what we learned about slavery was minimal to nothing. The story wasn’t told.

I believe that bypass has been and remains the norm. With maybe the exception of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, the voices of the enslaved are not heard. The transatlantic slave trade itself gets scant coverage. For generations, America has been unwilling to tell the story. Illiteracy about slavery is a common educational result. Students graduate with a very poor understanding of how slavery shaped America.

I couldn’t help but think about this when I saw the stories about Florida’s latest curriculum featuring a cartoon Christopher Columbus saying “being taken a slave is better than being killed.” Columbus tells the kids “slavery is no big deal.”

The Florida Department of Education has suggested some slaves benefited from skills they learned while enslaved. This is the type of statement you might expect from partisans of neo-Confederate Lost Cause ideology. Florida actually has a pernicious and shameful racial history on par with Alabama and Mississippi. It is no wonder the state would like to bury just how bad it was since it is so contrary to any sunshine state image designed to woo tourists.

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Most of the articles I have seen about Florida’s new curriculum don’t get into Florida’s actual history. That submerged story is well told in Marvin Dunn’s book “A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes.” It is like an underground history you never see told.

Going back to the 1500s, Spanish colonists began trafficking Africans to Florida. Slaves helped establish outposts and built fortifications. French trafficking of Africans followed later. The colonists resorted to using Africans when they found Native Americans more challenging to control. Possibly Africans were more disoriented in America being separated from their homes, families and culture.

Slave labor was critical to the development of economic and agricultural infrastructure in Florida and throughout the South. Florida was a wilderness. It became an American territory in 1821 and an American state in 1845. The U.S. government built a number of forts to protect the white settlers. The land grab by white Americans created an opportunity to profit by seizing large parcels of land.

The white settlers brought ideas of racial superiority with them. Black people had no status or protection from abuse by white people.

Dunn wrote, “Crimes against blacks were dismissed out of hand. Blacks could not serve on juries or testify in court against a white person. Often the press, police, judges, grand juries and elected officials were secretly, and sometimes openly, supportive of, if not involved in, the use of violence as a means of controlling blacks.”

Cotton plantations, especially around Tallahassee, sprang up in northern Florida. The white plantation owners worried about free Black people. They also worried about their ability to control the slave population. The example of the Haitian revolution and abolitionism spurred fear that association with free Black people might encourage their slaves to run away. Dunn says the loss of slaves meant a loss of wealth since the cost of slaves far exceeded the cost of land.

Dunn elaborated, “The incessant demand by slaveowners that the American government use military force to capture and return escaped slaves and to remove the Seminoles from Florida was the driving force that shaped the history of the peninsula for decades after the departure of the Spanish.”

New Orleans slave traders brought many slaves into Florida. St. Augustine was a slave trading hub. Many white people adhered to a might-makes-right mentality and the powers-that-be prevented and outlawed education for slaves. Mortality rates for slaves were much higher than that of the white population.

On January 10, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union. It was the third state to do so. When the Civil War picked up steam, the Union forces recruited Black people into the Union army, an act that didn’t sit well with many white Southerners. Black troops played an important role in battles that took place in Florida.

However, even after the Civil War was won, anti-Black violence remained rampant. Hopes that were raised for Black economic advancement during Reconstruction were dashed. Instead of land ownership to the former slaves, the white elites regained power and crushed Black hopes for economic power. Dunn wrote, “the economic fates of blacks for generations in the South was set in stone by this betrayal.” The dream of 40 acres and a mule never materialized.

Florida also made a concerted effort to repress Black voting, leading the way in implementing a poll tax in 1889. That theme of voter suppression remains consistent to this day.

What followed was an extremely dark period in Florida's history. Among states, Florida was in the top tier for lynching. It had the highest number of lynchings per capita of all the former Confederate states in the period from 1880-1930, more than twice the rate of Georgia, Mississippi or Louisiana. Racist Florida governors like Sidney Catts explicitly opposed NAACP efforts to bring lynchers to justice.

Florida also featured what is today known as ethnic cleansing: mobs of rampaging white men terrorizing Black communities and forcing people to flee for their lives. The Klan was active all over the state, especially in the 1920s. Lynchings and ethnic cleansing were about creating an atmosphere of terror to keep Black people down, in their place.

Florida’s efforts to minimize the effects of slavery reflect a white supremacist perspective. It is the story Florida’s leaders still want to tell in their PragerU videos.

Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.” So it has been in American history with those who came out on top telling the story. Instead of Florida’s whitewash, healing requires public acknowledgment of the real history.

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