Florida's Black Public Officials, 1867-1924

Article excerpt

Florida's Black Public Officials, 1867-1924. By Canter Brown, Jr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998. Pp. xiii, 252. Illustrations, introduction, biographical directory, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95, paper.)

Florida, like Arkansas and Texas, is an often neglected comer of the old Confederacy. It has been over two decades since any major work focused upon African Americans or the political process during the postCivil War years in Florida. This is an unfortunate oversight given that just before the outbreak of hostilities between the North and South and during the early years of Reconstruction, black Floridians accounted for almost half the state's population. In fact, the desire of Florida blacks to participate in politics surfaced immediately after Lee's surrender when over 150 African Americans cast ballots in municipal elections in the town of Fernandina. President Andrew Johnson effectively quashed this effort.

In Freedom's Lawmakers (1993), Eric Foner attempted a compendium of southern black officeholders during Reconstruction, but admitted that he had certainly overlooked a considerable number. Canter Brown, Jr.'s new work on Florida demonstrates what Foner was up against. In the end, Brown writes, with respect to Florida, the "identities of about 600 different individuals who held substantive office came to light," but several hundred others may have been excluded because of sparse records (p. xi). This book proves that every southern state requires a separate study of black officeholders. Until this process is complete, the names and background of obscure black politicians will be lost to history and the United States black political heritage will never be fully documented.

Brown, the Historian-in-Residence at the Tampa Bay History Center, has uncovered a host of Florida black political participants overlooked by Foner. Identifying African-American politicians who served from the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) until the middle 1920s is a daunting task. Across the South, many served as delegates to constitutional conventions or were elected to local, county, or state offices. Their tenure has too often been ignored in the history of the postwar and Redeemer South, but they nonetheless served their constituents reasonably well and attempted to forge alliances with white politicians that would ensure justice, equal rights, and equality for the former slaves.

Congress assumed control of Reconstruction in 1867 and enfranchised blacks. In Florida, blacks united with whites to form a coalition known as the "Mule Team." Daniel Richards and a former Union officer, Liberty Billings, joined forces with Charles Pearce, the presiding elder of the Florida AME Church and William U. Saunders, a Maryland mulatto, to promote the Republican ticket. However, the political "process divided white Loyalists, carpetbaggers, the state's principal black churches, and the black electorate generally" (p. …