Bleeding Marianna: “The City of Southern Charm”
Marianna is a city of about 6,200 people, the county seat of rural Jackson County in northwest Florida. It’s official nickname is “the city of southern charm.” If you drive I-10 quite a bit, as I do, it’s a place you know mostly by green highway signs. I’ve never been there, despite regularly traveling to nearby Tallahassee.
But my co-blogger Dan has. His book, The Jackson County War, is the definitive account of Florida’s bloodiest and fiercest Reconstruction counterinsurgency, our state’s own source material for the mythology of The Birth of a Nation. Go buy and read it. I mention this not to fluff Dan and his book, although it’s a truly vital history of Reconstruction from the ground level.
I mention it to marvel at the outsized and gothic brutality that one little city can produce. For those who don’t know, Marianna is the site of:
1) Perhaps Florida’s most bitter civil war battle. Not the biggest or bloodiest — those would be Olustee and Natural Bridge — but the one that had the most lasting social import. Because it happened in the town, where everyday people experienced it, not in some remote meeting place of armies. The Federal attack on the city near the end of the war overwhelmed the resistance of a hundred or so local fighters, and the result is credited with deepening resentments that exploded into…
2) The Jackson County War, the quintessential armed overthrow of Reconstruction in Florida, where mobs of angry white residents took up arms against local blacks — specifically those who sought political and economic independence — and white Republican officials from the Freedman’s Bureau and elsewhere. That’s Dan’s book. You should read it.
3) Probably Florida’s most notorious lynching, the festival of torture and mayhem that befell Claude Neal in 1934. See Ben Montgomery’s excellent account from the Tampa Bay Times from a year or so ago.
4) The still developing horror story of the state’s Dozier School for Boys, which finally closed in 2010. I don’t much beyond the accounts I’ve read in the news here and there. But anthropologists have found dozens of graves on the site of the historic “reform school,” thought primarily to be the graves of black boys. You can find the report produced by University of South Florida anthropologists here. What’s striking to me about the Dozier school report is how easy it is for those on the margins of society to disappear — from life, from history — without consequence for anyone but the tiny handful people who might love or miss them. I suppose many of the skeletons in those graves lacked even that.
The pulsing boils on humanity that tiny Marianna has produced in its 150 or so years of history should humble us. Who knows what else lies buried in our own homes? Who knows what we don’t know about ourselves, our families, the very ground on which we walk? Who knows what lurks behind our charm, in any place? History, to me, is humility. Marianna offers an eerie lesson. I’m not a superstitious man, but I’m not sure I’d roam any Jackson County fields alone late at night.