Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Struggle for Balance in Politics, Society; Dynamics of Race in City after the Civil War

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Struggle for Balance in Politics, Society; Dynamics of Race in City after the Civil War

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Hoffman


Author: Robert Cassanello

Data: University Press of Florida, 188 pages, $74.95

"To Render Invisible: Jim Crow and Public Life in New South Jacksonville" by University of Central Florida professor Robert Cassanello throws into bold relief the history of Jacksonville between the end of the Civil War and World War I, when former slaves and masters struggled to create a new equilibrium in politics and society. The primary site for the political struggle was the franchise; social relations gradually consolidated under Jim Crow laws, creating a separate, invisible existence that operated behind "the Veil," as W.E.B. DuBois called it.

Postwar Southern legislatures initially created constitutions that excluded black males from voting. The subsequent adoption of the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing suffrage, and congressional Reconstruction with its Union bayonets opened the door for male African-Americans in Jacksonville to vote and hold political office - which they did until shortly after the turn of the century.

Blacks initially voted as a bloc for Republican candidates. The Compromise of 1877 removed the last Union bayonets from the South, signaling the abandonment of African-Americans by the Republican Party and the return to the political arena of native whites. There followed a decade or so of fusionist politics in which blacks had a political opening by voting with white insurgents hostile to the Bourbon Democrats. When fusion tickets were successful, blacks shared in that success - elected as council members, appointed judges and justices of the peace, and employed as police.

The 1888 yellow fever epidemic, which saw large numbers of better-off whites flee the city to escape the fever, created a black electoral majority that voted into office a majority-white Republican municipal government. Jacksonville Democrats went to Tallahassee and complained of mob rule, resulting in the Legislature passing the notorious House Bill 4, which stripped Jacksonville of home rule and tasked Gov. Francis Fleming of Jacksonville with selecting all municipal officers, including the city council and mayor.

Home rule was restored in 1893, but not before the Legislature levied a poll tax and introduced the Australian or secret ballot, both of which had the effect of diminishing voting by poorer blacks and whites. Better-off blacks continued to vote and there continued to be plenty of political activity behind the Veil in African-American churches, social organizations and grassroots political clubs. Jacksonville's sixth ward, which was overwhelmingly black, turned out a reliable bloc vote, keeping one or two black council members in office until 1906 ,when the sixth ward was gerrymandered. …

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