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Emancipation Betrayed :

The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence

in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920


Paul Ortiz


Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

$ 50,00, 382 pages, ISBN 0-520-23946-6.


Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio

Independent Researcher



Paul Ortiz’s latest study Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 is an innovative one that gives great attention to a state that has often been overlooked in Reconstruction and Jim Crow history. The book is intended primarily for historians and students who are seeking a new perspective on how black Floridians struggled to create one of the first state-wide civil rights movements against Jim Crow America. Jim Crow laws were enacted to ensure that white supremacy would reign after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and keep black Americans subservient to white culture. Black Floridians intended to use the ballot of the 1920 Florida Election ‘to challenge the fundamental elements of racial oppression: poverty wages, debt peonage, failing schools, racial violence, and corrupt law enforcement’ [205]. Unfortunately the Florida election of 1920 led to widespread violence by white supremacists against black reformers.      

Although Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was to give black Americans complete freedom from slavery and a great amount of economic liberty, white supremacists across the United States took aggressive efforts to ensure that African Americans remained submissive to white culture. Prior to emancipation, Florida whites used violence to maintain strict control over blacks as well as enforcing heavy police surveillance of black communities. Ortiz notes that:

    During the Second Seminole War lawmakers in Apalachicola passed laws levying heavy poll taxes on free blacks who remained in Franklin County, empowered police to conduct sweeps and searches of black residences ‘without written permit’, forbade the sale or gift of alcohol to slaves, and authorized night patrol to inflict twenty lashes on ‘any slaves or free negroes found outside their lodgings without written permit from owner, employer or guardian’ [5]. 

The South therefore maintained that any form of black community organization must be closely supervised because it proved a potentially detrimental menace to white culture. By closely supervising black communities, white supremacists were privy to what was occurring among southern blacks. Conducting such extensive searches ‘without written permit’ almost guaranteed that black political organization in the American south would be impossible.

Paul Ortiz argues that the promise of reconstruction was a broken one. In Florida the Republicans and Democrats enforced strong government control to “dilute the effectiveness of the ballot” [11]. Fears that higher wages for newly emancipated slaves would lower profits for white industrialists and ultimately offset investment in the American south led southern politicians to enforce Jim Crow laws that restricted access to public services and mobility for blacks. Certain areas where blacks were forced to settle in enjoyed relatively low wages for similar work preformed by whites. Although many blacks were against segregation some were content to serve whites because doing so provided them with financial security. Radical Reconstruction was intended to rebuild the war-torn US south into an area where both blacks and whites would enjoy the same economic opportunities. Southern industrialists and white supremacists instead used Radical Reconstruction to restore white wealth. The New York and Mobile Turpentine Company reported in their 1866 corporate prospectus that   

    The labor question, now nearly settled, has rendered all branches of industry in the South uncertain during the past year. This difficulty was no longer anticipate, as the freedom, realizing that “liberty” does not mean “idleness,”  but that to work is a necessity, remain more permanently on the plantations. The Southern men themselves are ready to treat fairly with their former slaves, and Northern men understand more fully the proper way in which to manage the peculiar disposition of blackness … Politics yield to business, and everyone is striving to rebuild his shattered fortunes [16].

The New York and Mobile Turpentine Company’s report suggested that continuing to view blacks as inferior others with a ‘peculiar disposition’ was what the American south advocated even after emancipation. What I suggest is that the American south used Radical Reconstruction as a way of regaining their lost fortunes instead of realizing racial equality across the United States.  

Oral culture remained important in black communities before and after Emancipation. Even during the 1930s Florida blacks like Malachia Andrews narrated the violent stories his grandfather experienced during the nineteenth century. Andrews would recount how his grandfather told him slave stories about how slave masters would put their slaves to work despite weather conditions and would often use violence to tame disobedient workers. Combined with violence and suffrage Emancipation Day brought black communities throughout Florida together. During an Emancipation Day gathering Reverend D.S.D. Belling’s speech to an African American crowd left ‘scarcely a dry eye in the audience’ [93] as he recounted the hardships he experienced in bondage. Moreover, the Church became one of black America’s primary methods of expressing their vows. Preachers continued to speak the word of God and of the struggle to gain freedom.

Mutual aid organizations were established to guarantee that no one suffered violence from white supremacists groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Colored Knights of Pythias was perhaps the most significant of secret societies in Florida. First established in Florida during the Reconstruction era, the Knights’ ‘sacred oaths pledged members to “destroy” caste and color prejudices; to relieve the needs and afford succour to a brother; to elevate man to a higher plane of intelligence, mortality and social equality; to administer to the sick and suffering’ [116]. From the passage that I have just cited, the Colored Knights of Pythias strove to have humanity stop practicing racism and prejudice. The Knights also ensured that endowment claims were paid to widows and survivors who died accidentally, by disease or suddenly. The Knights’ main goal was to ensure that everyone who required financial assistance was provided for.

The right to vote has always been a major topic in the United States. In the late 1910s and early 1920s black Floridans organized to vote in the election of 1920. Also termed the Bloody Election of 1920 this election was ‘the key to the fate of legal segregation in America’ [xiv]. Although black Floridians were allowed to vote, white supremacists took sometimes violent measures to impede blacks from organizing to discuss politics. African Americans countered white supremacy by transforming the church into a political club to make organizing easier and secretive from white officials. During church meetings black Americans would discuss how to protest against Jim Crow laws and avoid racial violence on voting days. Having recently gained the right to vote, black women faced oppressive measures from white supremacists who tried to suppress their vote. Black women received almost no protection from white supremacists who considered that ‘the attorney general of Florida came to Jacksonville to rally Democratic men and women to defend white supremacy’ [190]. Registrars across Florida attempted to intimidate black women into committing election fraud by deceiving them into giving ‘false testimony regarding birth dates and residence’ [191] to open up grounds for criminal prosecution.

The Bloody Election of 1920 has become known as one of the most violent political events in American history. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, enacted mass violence against black activist groups like the Pythians. KKK members surrounded, shot at, and set fire to Pythians Chattahoochee headquarters to intimidate black Floridians to not vote. Many Pythians were murdered and severely beaten. In a matter of a few days four Pythian lodges were burned down and several other KOP members were killed across Florida. Although the KKK’s actions did intimidate black Floridians as most thought, black Floridians nonetheless voted in the 1920 election. Although white supremacist violence did stagger and cause a set back in black voting in Florida, black Floridians did nevertheless manage to gain a great deal of power by voting. What black participation in the 1920 election proved was that African Americans saw themselves as active participants in American politics with the understanding that they had a significant amount of input to contribute to their country.

A valuable contribution to American history and black studies, Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 provides its readership with a worthwhile study on how black Floridians formed politically to fight against white supremacy and ultimately have a place in American politics. Although Florida is an often overlooked state in Reconstruction and Jim Crow history, the events that transpired in Florida during Reconstruction until the 1920s became indicative of the black civil rights movement of the 1960s, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and finally Barak Obama’s newly won presidency. Paul Ortiz’s study is a valuable one that in my estimation demonstrates how black resistance against white supremacy in Florida could very well be one of the points of origin that gained black Americans equal rights with whites across the United States.    


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