The B&O Bookshelf: books about Florida’s history from Civil War to Civil Rights

Since we talk quite a lot at Blood & Oranges about Florida history books, I thought we should start a discussion about the impoortant non-fiction Florida books that deal with the B&O century (roughly 1865 to 1965).  Here is a list in chronological order of such books that are alternately informative and enlightening, along with some important works and writers we find outright irritating.

We’re leaving out Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy because they don’t really need our attention. Their Eyes Were Watching God is taught in most Florida schools these days. And Stetson Kennedy became an icon long ago. Their work is broad and deep and difficult to reduce to a book or two highlight. Likewise with Patrick Smith’s A Land to Remember.   Also, just because our focus is politics and race, we’re overlooking several important environmental history books that deal with the destruction of Florida’s natural heritage, such as the recent Ditch of Dreams.

We’re know this list is a little idiosyncratic. It is surely incomplete.  Feel free to add your recommendations and detestations.

John Wallace: Carpetbag Rule in Florida (1888)  A crucial but troubling document purportedly written by a disillusioned black politician who rails against the hypocrisy of the Republican Party and its Reconstruction policy.  Ironically, this book vindicates the white Democratic “Redeemers” and has given great aid and comfort to subsequent Dunning School adherents.  The extent of Wallace’s authorship has been questioned.  Readability: not very high, but it has some entertaining anecdotes and can be found in full on googlebooks.

Black soldiers in the Spanish-American War: Smoked Yankees and the Struggle for Empire: Letters from Negro Soldiers, 1898-1902. (Edited by Willard B. Gatewood, Jr.Black soldiering between after Reconstruction through WWI is a pet obsession for Billy. Many of these letters come from soldiers who were stationed in Lakeland or Tampa while awaiting deployment to Cuba. Several of them are written from Lakeland or Tampa and describe the drunken chaos and racial violence that descended along with thousands of young men in west central Florida.

William Watson Davis: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida (1913): The book that dominated Florida historiography for fifty years.  Entertaining but antediluvian in its racial attitude: a perfect reflection of the Dunning school.  This book is essential if only to understand the subsequent works that tear it to shreds.  Readability:  high (but with a caution flag), very easy to skim through to find particular topics of interest – free on googlebooks.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: We’re not leaving out Marjorie Rawlings like Hurston or Kennedy because most fans overlook what Billy considers her greatest value — her work in her letters as a social historian of World War II-era Florida.  The Private Marjorie (2004, edited by Rodger Tarr) collects her letters to husband Norton Baskin. In them, Marjorie shares her take on everything from love to race to politics to feminism. And she does it with great entertainment value. She would have enjoyed blogging. In addition, Rawlings’ Cross Creek (1942) anticipates without exactly anticipating our modern ongoing conundrums around privacy, development, and racial equity. It would land her in court for the famous Cross Creek invasion of privacy trial, which you can read about in Patricia Acton’s Invasion of Privacy (1988).

Joe M. Richardson: The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida (1963) Published exactly fifty years after Davis, this is the first great “Revisionist” volume of Florida history to up-end Davis and the Dunning school mentality.  Further notable as the first serious work of Florida history to recognize blacks as political actors with minds and motivations of their own and to treat the Freedman’s Bureau as anything other than evil. Readability: Good: Richardson has an accessible style, but a bit scholarly.  Thankfully, Univ. of Alabama Press has made this book available in a 2008 paperback reprint titled African Americans in the Reconstruction of Florida.”

David M. Chalmers: Hooded Americanism (1965) This is the definitive history of the Ku Klux Klan — and its various incarnations — across America. You’ll notice the the so-called revival Klan of the WWI and 20s era dominates the book. It’s not surprising because that Klan — a truly national phenomenon — nearly took over the country. Not a Florida book per se, but Chalmers was a University of Florida professor.   For Florida’s Klan specifically, there is Michael Newton’s The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Florida (2001) which is a history of the subject from Recosntruction forward, but it is essentially a pastiche of secondary sources with little original research.

Jerrell H. Shofner: Nor is it Over Yet: Florida in the Era of Reconstruction 1863-1877 (1974). This comprehensive political history of Florida’s Reconstruction era completely supplants Davis’s Reconstruction chapters. The detail and research involved is staggering.  Although Shofner is technically in the “Revisionist” camp, his mindset is somewhat conservative: he’s definitely not a 60’s campus radical.  Still, this is the essential work of Florida Reconstruction history and probably will be for a long time.  Readability: not so great – lots of detail, dense prose. Long out of print from UPF, but used copies are cheaply available.

Edward C. Williamson: Florida Politics in the Gilded Age, 1877-1893 (1976). This political history serves as a postscript to Shofner’s Nor is it Over Yet.  This is very old fashioned, bone-dry history, but useful as the first serious overview of Florida’s “age of redemption”  It’s particularly strong in its account of Florida’s Populist and Farmers Alliance third-party protests against the Bourbon Democrats. It’s weakest in its treatment of blacks as independent political actors. Readability: good – not nearly as dense as Shofner, but not nearly as groundbreaking either. Like Nor is it Over Yet, Williamson’s Gilded Age is out-of-print from Univ. Press of Florida but used copies are not too expensive.   [Billy’s Snarky aside:  anyone else getting the sense that UPF doesn’t value its role as custodian of Florida history too highly? Maybe some Florida taxpayers should remind their press of this responsibility.]  For a statistically-based analysis of voting during the same Gilded age era and the impact of Jim Crow voter suprression laws, check out the Florida chapter in Morgan Kousser’s The Shaping of Southern Politics (1974).  Paul Ortiz (see below) ably fills the rest of the void in Wiliamson’s book.

E. Canter Brown, Jr and Larry E. Rivers:  In my estimation, Canter Brown is the pre-eminent scholar working in Florida’s 19th and early 20th century political and African American history.  His work relevant to our list includes Florida’s Black Public Officials, 1867-1924 (1998); Ossian Bingley Hart: Florida’s Loyalist Reconstruction Governor (1997), and together with Larry E. Rivers, the two religious history books: For a Great and Grand Purpose: The Beginnings of the AMEZ Church in Florida, 1864-1905 (2004) and Laborers in the Vineyard of the War: The Beginning of the AME Church in Florida, 1865-1895 (2001).  All of these books are worthwhile, quite readable, and available used through the usual internet sites.  Florida’s Black Public Officials, in particular, is groundbreaking.

Paul Ortiz: Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (2006):  A seminal work that finds its greatest value in drawing attention to the injustices of Florida’s age of Jim Crow.  I’m guessing that by now Emancipation Betrayed is required reading for any Florida history course.  Readability: high.

Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns (2010): Billy considers no single book as vital to understanding the country we live in today as Wilkerson’s massive and beautiful immersion in the Great Migration of black Americans out of the south into northern cities. That Wilkerson’s work essentially stands alone as a well-known volume concerning the Great Migration reflects our national ignorance — and, it must be said, the failure of the 20th century academy. It should not have taken until 2010 for this book to emerge. And it should not have fallen to a newspaper reporter, even one so talented and dedicated as Wilkerson.  Billy believes that only WWI — which set it in motion — surpasses the Great Migration in its defining impact on the nature of the American nation. A full third of WOOS focuses on George Starling Of Eustis, who fled north from the same Sheriff Willis McCall of Lake County who dominates Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove. Readability: Very high.

Dan Weinfeld: The Jackson County War (2012).  (From Billy) Dan’s book does for Florida’s Reconstruction Redeemer insurgency what Wilkerson’s book does for the Great Migration. It humanizes it. In doing so, it reveals the hard-boiled tribal inhumanity that drove Redemption and the illustrates starkly the impossibility of sustaining the North’s occupation of the South. Redemption deserves every word of moral condemnation it has received with the rise of the “revisionist” historian movement. But the word it most deserved was “inevitable.”  Dan’s book makes that sad fact very clear. Readability: High  [Dan: Thanks Billy! Where do I wire the money?]

Billy Townsend: Age of Barbarity (2012).  (From Billy) I think my book provides the only fairly comprehensive account in existence of Florida life in the era of WWI, Great Migration, Prohibition, Land boom and bust, and peak Klan political power. Like Wilkerson’s book, I humbly suggest that AOB fills a hole it should not have needed to fill. [From Dan: for my opinion on the importance and innovation of AOB, go to my 5 star amazon review].

Gilbert King: Devil in the Grove, Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America (2012):  This Pulitzer Prize and Florida Book Award winner doesn’t need help from our p.r. department.  Important for bringing widespread public attention to Marshall and the Groveland story.  King has done more for Florida history than all the other post-Davis authors combined.  Only negative: sometimes King doesn’t let the sources stand in the way of good narrative detail and conclusions.  Readability: as high as the Polk Co. temperature in August.

Robert Cassanello, To Render Invisible: Jim Crow and Public Life in New South Jacksonville (2013), see Billy’s recent review on this site.

Although the Civil War itself is technically just beyond the bounds of B&O’s focus, I can’t resist recommending two excellant and recent Florida Civil War books: in A Small But Spartan Band (2010), Zack Waters and James Edmonds tell the story of the Florida regiments that fought in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Jonathan Sheppard‘s By the Noble Daring of Her Sons (2012) describes the recruitment and experience of the Florida regiments sent to the war’s western theater.  The books are wonderful companions and should be read together. Both are based on intensive research and feature great writing.

Any more ideas?


One Comment

  1. martha anne griffin August 15, 2016 Reply

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *