Breathing New Life into the History of Florida

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Hoffmann

FINDING FLORIDA: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE SUNSHINE STATE

Author: T.D. Allman

Data: Atlantic Monthly Press, 462 pages, $27.50

It has been said, truly, that the victors write the history of an event, an insight borne out by Florida's history and geographic nomenclature.

Jacksonville is named after the popular U.S. president who set into motion the Trail of Tears, a 19th-century example of ethnic cleansing. Gov. Napoleon Broward of Jacksonville advocated forcibly rounding up and shipping to Africa blacks who had deeper roots in the United States than most whites. And Pedro Menendez, who founded the first enduring European settlement in North America in St. Augustine, ordered his men to slaughter disarmed Frenchmen who had surrendered under the white flag of amnesty.

T.D. Allman's career as a writer, which took off in 1970 when he exposed the covert U.S. bombing of Laos, has been all about combating disinformation. In "Finding Florida," Allman ferrets out the lies and hypocrisy that dominated older versions of Florida history as well as contemporary misinformation. The result is a highly readable popular history that weaves the best of today's academic historians and resurrects submerged texts and documents of the past.

The first, and longer, segment of the book focuses on the centuries before 1900, a historical period during which most of the state's history took place in northern Florida. Three features emerged in the earlier centuries that continue today to shape Florida history and society.

THE WEALTHY BENEFIT

First, the public sector is underfunded by the constant refusal of public officials to tax adequate to the state's needs. Education, public health and environment have suffered as a consequence.

Second, "development projects" that benefit already wealthy folk, many of them from outside Florida, have squandered the resources that ought to benefit the citizens. The prime precedent for these giveaways to the wealthy occurred in the late 19th century when Gov. Edward A. Perry's administration (1885-89) surrendered millions of acres to speculators, ultimately leaving the state with little to show for it in terms of the public sector.

Third, manipulation of voter laws since the so-called Redemption Constitution of 1885, which signified the return of white home rule in Florida, resulted in a pattern of one-party domination built upon legal disfranchisement of African Americans and of whites with modest incomes. …