Category: Modernizing Florida


“I Ain’t No Porter”

In July of 1943, Marjorie took a train to Michigan to visit a relative. She wrote the following about her arrival in Michigan in the opening paragraph of a letter to Norton:

There were no porters and I had to carry my heavy bags. I tackled an idle colored man in the Michigan Central station and said I was desperate for a porter and would he help me. He said insolently, ‘I ain’t no porter.’

What follows in her letter is a remarkable discussion of “the Negro question” in Michigan. As Marjorie’s opening foreshadows, black labor and white entitlement to service and deference dominate the racial discussion portion of the letter. But you have to hear it in her words to fully grasp the import. Here are the relevant passages:

The negro question in Michigan throws new light on the problem. I questioned everyone I met about it. There seem to be two angles to it in that section. Most of the people I talked to hate[emphasis hers - ed.] the negroes with a venom that is astonishing to those of us who love them [emphasis mine-ed.]. Then I ran into a woman who has charge of all the school cafeterias in Pontiac, (where there is still an Osmun Street, named for my Grandmother’s pioneer ancestors). Pontiac [a suburb of Detroit - ed.] is now a city of about 100,000. Negroes there have for years had “equal rights.” They have gone to the same schools as the whites, had the same advantages and opportunities, are not segregated in any way. These have made desirable citizens, some of them prominent lawyers and doctors, though this woman said that on the whole the negroes had never done as well in school as the whites. She said there has never been any trouble with these negroes. She has absolutely no [emphasis mine - ed.] race prejudice and said she would have no feeling about marrying a colored man if his character and intelligence were acceptable. She said the trouble is coming from the ignorant Southern negroes who are flocking to the high paid defense jobs and who are totally unable to appreciate their wages and privileges. She said, as did the other Midwesterners who hate the negroes, that this group is arrogant, pushing, without manners. They delight in intruding on white resorts and driving out the whites. It is they who have caused the race riots in Michigan. A General Motors executive, the sweetheart, or fiance, or what-have-you, of one of my cousins, who is among the negro-haters, (and who is a Fascist of the first water, incidentally) said that the white mechanics and factory workers resent having these ignorant apes move in beside them at the machines and draw the high wages toward which they have spent their lives working — and then be arrogant to boot. This checks with the story of a woman who has no race prejudice and shows one thing certainly: that the mass of Southern negroes is not ready for equality. Yet her story would indicate that under equality, the negro becomes a desirable citizen. Mr. Gay, who runs “the” store in Hawthorn, told me that negroes were being organized. He said that a group of twenty or thirty went by his house the other night, shouting things about their rights and what they meant to do. He said they were buying up all available guns and knives. Chet Crosby verified this. I wondered if foreign agents were behind this, in an effort to cause trouble, and Chet said that the FBI was investigating now in our section. If trouble comes, there is only one outcome, and it will be at the expense of the negroes. Even a diehard Southerner like Chet is in favor of education and better wages for the negro. It would be a great pity if the negroes were misled by spies and fifth columnists. It could not harm the country, but it would set the negro back a hundred years.

Well, I think that says quite a bit about the esteem in which Marjorie held her own conclusions about “negro” nature and the quality of the independent sourcing upon which she based them. What’s striking here isn’t the racism, which was probably fairly humdrum in its time, but the absence of rigor in assessing the basis for these conclusions. For a novelist and journalist who personally knew many individual black men and women of differing classes, who rendered them as individuals in her fiction and non-fiction writing, it’s striking how willing she is to lump them all into a formless abstraction easily summed up by people she met at dinner parties. And look at the sins for which she convicts them. Arrogance. Showing up at “white resorts”. Not appreciating their privileges. There’s not a single reference to actual documented bad behavior. Only generalization that can’t be disproven. Pointedly, none of her interlocutors even assert that the blacks are bad workers. It’s the ingratitude, the uppityness, the insolence they can’t abide — the idea that Marjorie might have to carry her own bags when a black man was nearby.

What’s often striking about grand racial theories is the flimsiness of their supporting data and how often they require the theorist to ignore basic human nature. In this case, Marjorie bases her point in large part on the testimony of people she blithely assures us have no race prejudice – because they told her so – and takes their word for sacred. You would certainly expect Marjorie to know more about human nature than that. But then we all have our prejudicial blind spots, which cause us to ignore things we know are true.

Beyond that, the importance of labor relations, as the defining aspect of race relations, shines through this letter. I’m reading a terrific book right now called “Emancipation Betrayed,” which is, in contrast to Marjorie’s sociology, exhaustively sourced. The author, Paul Ortiz, hones in throughout on the brutal steps white employers and business interests, aided by police and vigilantism, took to force blacks in Florida to work in Florida, on terms dictated by Floridian elites.

It’s important to understand the extreme totalitarian measures the white business interests of Florida took to keep this hated mass of “ignorant Southern negroes”, who Marjorie loved so well, from leaving Florida in the late 1910’s and 20’s and seeking those better opportunities in the north.

In one key episode cited by Ortiz, Jacksonville Mayor J.E.T. Bowden in 1916 ordered city police to prevent blacks from leaving from the Jacksonville train station. As blacks would assemble at Jacksonville’s Union Station, police would descend upon them with clubs and violence. It became impossible for a group of black workers to await a train bound for out of state. Instead, individuals played cloak and dagger with cops, dashing onto trains at opportune moments. And labor recruiters — carpetbaggers in reverse — helped blacks organize transportation outside of the train station. One wonders if Marjorie’s “insolent” non-porter was one of the men who risked his life to hop a train out of Florida. Impossible to know. But if he was one of the thousands of blacks who got out of Florida during the pre-depression migratory period, you can bet he carried his own bags.

– There’s a fun little postscript to this letter. At the end, Marjorie is discussing books with Norton and has this to say about one of them: “Dorothy Baker’s (Young Man with a Horn) new book is brilliant technically but the Lesbian subject-matter is repulsive. Can’t recommend it.”

Heh. That will lead us beautifully into my next post, when we’ll talk about the “mannish” women of the Cross Creek Trial and what role their, ahem, relative femininity, may have played in what happened.


Homicide Rate in 1926 Putnam County Worse Than 2008 Detroit

How violent was Putnam County, Florida, of which Palatka is the county seat, in 1926?

The most conservative possible count of Putnam homicides in 1926 puts the county’s rate at about 41 per 100,000 population. For comparison, poor, beleaguered Detroit led the US in homicide rate in 2008 with 37.4 per 100,000 of population. The genteel south, indeed.

I’ve gleaned these numbers from reports in the Palatka Times-Herald, the weekly newspaper of the day. An Oct. 8, 1926, story previewing the fall court session for Putnam County cites defendants in four Putnam killings as awaiting trial in the session. The killings occurred between April and September. I know of at least three other murders that occurred in 1926 that didn’t yield arrests by the fall term. Putnam’s population in 1926 was about 17,000. Seven murders in 17,000 population translates to 41 per 100,000 in my calculations. I feel relatively certain that there were more killings earlier in 1926, but I haven’t been able to scour the record yet to find them.

The Times-Herald declared in its Oct. 8 story, “The greatest number of murder cases in the history of Putnam County will be investigated by the grand jury during the fall term of the court.”

For what it’s worth, J.V. Walton successfully defended two of the accused in one of the murders tried during this fall term.

When you couple this appalling homicide rate with the mob/klan violence that exploded each weekend during the year, you begin to sense what a terrifying period this must have been. And it wasn’t just Palatka.

On Aug. 12, 1926, Florida Gov. John Martin appeared before the Gainesville Kiwanis Club and lamented Florida’s record of violence.

Here’s an excerpt from the Gainesville Sun account:

“Let us put a stop to the taking of human life in our fair state,” Governor Martin said. “Let us create a feeling of abhorrence against homicide. Here is a challenge worth of the attention of every law abiding and law loving citizen.”

The governor referred to the fact that he has recently returned from the the conference of governors of the various states held this year in Wyoming, and that while a this conference the governor of Maine had declared that in that state there have been no murders during this year. [ed-Remember, there were at least seven in Putnam County alone in 1926]

“That s a remarkable record the stat of Maine has made,” Governor Martin asserted, “and our record does not compare favorably with it. During the next few months I am going to try to arouse the people of this state to their duty in this matter.”

If I accomplish nothing else with this project, I want to disabuse anyone who reads of the notion that somehow our ancestors lived by codes of honor and decency that exceeded our own, that the civilizations they built were more humane or orderly or noble. They were not. They were subject to all the same base human instincts and fallibilities that Detroit struggles with today.


Sunday, March 4, 1945: “Florida Still Undeveloped, Says Caldwell”

I’m now in possession of what’s left of the Walton case file for the Cross Creek trial. While rummaging through various transcripts, depositions, and letters of support for Zelma, I came across a small manila envelope containing five immaculately creased and folded copies of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union state news pages from March 4, 1945. That date marked Florida’s centennial as a state.

There’s nothing about the case in that edition. But Marjorie shows up twice, as the star of unrelated stories. That suggests something about her prominence in 1945 Florida following the success of The Yearling and Cross Creek.

The first story, an AP wire dispatch headlined “Movement to Honor Negro Teacher Starts,” noted Marjorie gave the keynote speech at an event honoring Mary McLeod Bethune and calling for a nationwide day of honor for the famous educator.

Key passage:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of Florida folk novels, was the principal speaker on the program. She said the founder of Bethune-Cookman College at Daytona Beach and former negro director of the NYA had set an example of “pride, dignity and responsibility” for the negro race.

This was completely in character for Marjorie, who aggressively cultivated relationships with black men and women in writing and academia as one way of addressing “the Negro question.” We’ll delve into this further when we talk about Zora Neale Hurston and others in future posts.

A separate story, describing some Florida centennial festivities, reported that Marjorie provided a “special message” printed in the Congressional Record in honor of Florida’s big day. The state contains “such an array of garden flowers and of garden vegetables as to make one wonder why the Capitol of the United States was not placed in the Floridian eden instead of Washington, D.C.,” wrote Marjorie, according to the news story. “And the climate, take the lies of California, and in Florida, they are truth.”

But the truly fun story in that paper, another AP dispatch, has nothing to do with Marjorie. It quotes from Gov. Millard Caldwell’s article published for the centennial in “State Government,” a magazine of state affairs. “Florida Still Undeveloped, Says Caldwell,” reads the headline. Because this was an AP story, it likely ran in every major state newspaper at the time. I’m going to reproduce the whole thing here, just because it’s so cool. AP can sue me.

One hundred years ago today Florida became the twenty-eighth State in the Union, and now, on entering its second century of statehood the State “is still undeveloped, its destiny still unfulfilled,” according to Governor Millard Caldwell.

The State chief executive in an article “Florida’s Second Century” appearing in the current issue of State Government, a magazine of State affairs, reviewed the first 100 years of statehood. He said:

“Our State has experienced prenomenal [ed-typo?] development. From a frontier region sparsely inhabited around the northern shoreline and boundary, with a few primitive industries, one shortline railroad, a few scattered links of ungraded woods roads, and an economy based on general farming, the open cattle range, and lumbering, Florida has forged ahead to a prominent position in the Nation.

“In taking stock of our resources, of our accomplishments, and of our goals, in this centennial year, we find that we have neglected opportunities and wasted resources.

“One of the immediate tasks before us is the conservation of our surface and artesian fresh water supply, with attention to problems in drainage, erosion, and contamination. Discovery of oil in Florida may lead to development of a profitable commercial field and we are taking steps to conserve the supply and to tax the production equitably.

“Floridians are not satisfied with our State’s educational standing, and we are laying the groundwork for further development in our public school system.

“In many ways, Florida is having growing pains. We have a rapidly increasing population and the load carried by our governmental units, institutions, and services steadily grow heavier. It is our aim to put every tax revenue dollar to work earning dividends and building a greater Florida. We do not, however tolerate the false economy of starving services essential to our continued growth. We are prepared to pay reasonable taxes to build a greater State.”

In conclusion the governor commented, “Florida has no State debt, has a post-war construction reserve of $15,000,000, and all bills are paid. We are in excellent financial and physical condition to face the post-war era squarely, with courage and with confidence in the future.

“Florida, on the eve of its second century of statehood, is still undeveloped, its destiny still unfulfilled.”

Any of that sound familiar, Floridians?

I thought of Caldwell’s remarks when I read this USA Today story a few days ago:

Last month came the most jaw-dropping announcement of all: The state that made population growth the linchpin of its economy for more than 60 years lost a net 58,000 people this year [2008-2009], according to newly released estimates for April 1.

“It’s the end of an era,” says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. “Florida represents an entire postwar vision of the good life — palm trees, low cost and no taxes, just easy living. They could turn it around, but in the short haul, it’s paradise lost.”

One wonders to what degree Marjorie’s great success as a sort of Floridian spokeswoman and de facto marketer contributed to the relentless post-war growth. Consider this editorial published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Feb. 19th, 1943, lamenting the lawsuit:

In Cross Creek, Mrs. Rawlings offered every urban dweller with a speck of imagination the perfect means of escape from the hurly burly, the financial worries and the artificiality of the modern big city. In this account of her life as a transplanted resident of the hammock section of north central Florida the author invited us in beautiful prose to cast off the bonds of urban routine and come live among the kindly, simple people of the backwoods.

Mrs. Rawlings was not the only writer who has in effect extended such an invitation. It has been done for both the woods and rocky coasts of Maine, for the placid villages in the valleys of Vermont, for the farming sections of Ohio. But ‘Cross Creek’ was among the most convincing of escapist literature; and it is safe to say that, although not more than a handful of her readers ever would have mustered up their courage to make the break, life was made easier for thousands of them by the thought, that some day, if the scramble for a standard of living became unbearable, they would pack up and seek the quiet life of the country where human relations meant more than financial success.

Whether they came for the “quiet life of the country,” or for the quasi-luxurious life of the tawdry beach condo or gated community, one wonders how many Plain Dealer readers did, indeed, make their way to Florida between the end of the war and the land crash of 2007-08. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I’ll be reseaching some of those numbers in the coming weeks. In the meantime, in the same vein, consider this editorial from a previous incarnation of my former employer, the Tampa Morning Tribune, from Jan. 1, 1947, the year following the trial.

We invite, probably, a shower of brickbats when we suggest Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings as Florida’s “Woman of the Year.” This far-famed author of Florida fiction wrote her masterpiece “The Yearling” and received the Pulitzer Prize for it prior to 1946, but it was in 1946 that the story was made into one of the acknowledged great motion pictures of all time. [ed. - Really? Of all time? Like Citizen Kane? ] For her literary achievements, in addition to the far-reaching favorable notice she has brought to the state, this adopted Floridian, who has immortalized our “backwoods,” is entitled to the top place among Florida women.

Could it be that the siren of the “backwoods” helped kill it by her very sirenity? Who knows? Whether Marjorie and her work served as a catalyst of this “postwar vision of the good life” is probably unanswerable in an empirical sense, though I’ll be taking a shot at it. But in the lawsuit and trial, I don’t think you could find a better cultural emblem of that particular inflection point in Florida and U.S. history. It announced an era that has culminated in another inflection point – the crash of Florida’s second great land boom and the election of Barack Obama as president, with the overwhelming backing of Florida’s non-white population. Whatever one thinks of either of these developments, they do seem to herald the emergence of a different type of Florida than we’ve known.

The participants in the Cross Creek case seemed aware of their presence at the conception of the new Florida, which itself was a function of the new US and its dominant technological and cultural role in the post-war global order.

Consider, as a conclusion to this post, these passages from Aunt Katie’s first appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, demanding a trial. She filed this pleading on Oct. 19, 1943:

The advance of civilization and the consequent necessary development of manners and customs suitable to our society, wherein specialization, speed of transportation and communication and increased population have made men inter-dependent, have been reflected in the growth of law. Duels are outlawed, self-help to right a legal wrong or to avenge an injury is frowned upon. We look to the courts for recognition of rights of individuals and for remedy for personal injury.


It is particularly fitting that the right of privacy should have been first recognised and integrated as an actionable right under the common law in the United States, for this is a necessary corollary from the principles of individual sovereignty and of personal freedom under laws which are corner stones of our theory of government; and it is not inappropriate that this cause should come before this court in a year of war when the very status of man is in issue, for it is with the dignity of man as a free-willed individual that the law of privacy concerns itself, and, in the last analysis, we were constrained to wage this war, not for numbered freedoms, not to assert the superiority of one form of government over another, but by an urgent need to maintain our concept of the equality of man and of his status as a free individual.