Florida's Democratic Primary Law and the 1928 Putnam County Sheriff's Election

In my book, Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida, I

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tentatively hazarded a theory about the historic victory that former Putnam Sheriff Peter Hagan won over Sheriff R.J. Hancock and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan in 1928.

I suggested that black Democratic votes helped Hagan win the June 1928 Democratic primary against Hancock, who had defeated him four years earlier and unleashed Florida's worst sustained outbreak of Klan violence and mob rule.

I mentioned this to my B&O partner-in-crime Dan Weinfeld at last spring's Florida Historical Society conference. Dan very quickly replied, “How could that be? It was illegal in Florida for blacks to vote in the Democratic primary.”

To which I responded, “Hmmmm.”

It is just a theory; I don't assert it as fact. But I'm still not sure I'm wrong about the black Democratic votes in Putnam's 1928 election. But I could be. And I'm hoping to get some input from more seasoned observers of voting history.

I base my theory on several factors:

  • Most importantly, I recognized several important black names on the eligible voters list published in local newspapers just prior to the June primary. I could have misinterpreted what this entitled them to do, but they are there.
  • 1928 saw a national shift by blacks away from
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    the Republican party to the historic Democratic candidacy of Al Smith, a Catholic, anti-Prohibition Democrat from New York. He got trounced, by the way, by Herbert Hoover, who ran a viciously anti-Catholic campaign and won significant support from white racial populists. In Al Smith's candidacy, you see early germs of the modern Democratic coalition.

  • And in 1916, Palatka Daily News editor William Russell wrote this fascinating account of Putnam County's very real multi-racial politics:

Now and then you will find a negro who is a democrat, but they are few. Those who registered in the primary books as democrats have long been in the land and look upon the democratic party as their friend. It hasn’t been trying to use them. It has stood for getting them a fair deal, but draws the line at elevating them to official place. It isn’t asking their votes under the false notion that they are to

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get something in return that looks like an office. The democratic party pledges that the negro shall have a square deal and that he shall have every opportunity to make of himself a useful citizen; it opens to him the door of opportunity, but not the door of official place. For this one reason he has not been a democrat, if for no other. [emphasis mine]

The negro is a republican because that party feeds him on promises. They are false promises, of course, but the negro hasn’t fully recognized that yet. Once in a while he gets an inkling that he is merely being used by designing politicians and begins to bolt. But he’s soon won back by more false promises and the story of Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He prefers to make his bed with republicans and sinners.”

If my perception is inaccurate, I think you can see how I may have formed it nonetheless. In retrospect, there's nothing about Russell's statement that indicates the rare black Democrat is allowed

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sentence in bold depends entirely upon the assumptions we make. But I'm not sure which assumption is correct.

Dan found an old Florida Cracker newspaper from 1902 which clearly states that only white voters are allowed to vote in the state primary.

So I do suspect legal restrictions were in place in 1928. But it's important to remember that the pivotal 1928

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Putnam election featured equally Democratic factions battling it out on very even terms. Would it be possible for one of them to make black votes count?

And was the primary law a law? Or was it a party rule?

Anyway, consider this an open request to educate me further on the the Democratic primary practices of the pre-Civil Rights era. And to offer an informed opinion on the possibility of black votes in the 1928 victory over the Klan in Putnam County.

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