Florida Reacts to the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968)

Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by gunshot on April 4, 1968 as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The reaction across the United States was a mixture of disbelief, grief, and at times violent anger. Tensions boiled over in scores of U.S. cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C. as young people took to the streets to vent their frustration at the untimely death of one of the era’s greatest forces for peaceful change.

Reactions to King’s death were just as passionate in Florida, where memorials, demonstrations, and rioting took place in several cities across the state. Police in Pensacola, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Fort Pierce, Pompano Beach, Tampa, and Jacksonville reported widespread rioting and the use of Molotov cocktails to firebomb businesses and residences owned by whites. At least one fatality resulted from these activities in Tallahassee, where one man aged 19 died when a firebomb was thrown into his family’s grocery store.

Local and state officials moved quickly to restore order. The city of Gainesville instituted a curfew shortly after news of the assassination broke out, requiring everyone except emergency personnel to remain off the streets between 11pm and 6am. In Gainesville and Tallahassee, law enforcement temporarily closed liquor stores, bars, and gas stations. Governor Claude Kirk met with state law enforcement officials to plan a statewide strategy for maintaining the peace, and kept in close contact with local sheriffs and police.

Organizations both inside and outside of the government encouraged the public to remain calm and avoid any further violence. Governor Kirk asked that all flags flown on public buildings in the state be flown at half mast for two days, and in a press release he called on Dr. King’s followers and admirers to live by King’s example and seek nonviolent solutions for their grievances. George Gore, president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, closed the campus for a weeklong “cooling off” period following the assassination. The Florida Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) released a statement calling for Floridians to observe the day of King’s funeral (April 9th) as a “time of sober reflection” rather than demonstration.

Although anguish and disillusionment over the death of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s foremost leaders would remain potent long after these events, the most dramatic reactions ended by the middle of April 1968. Rumors circulated that Governor Kirk would call a special session of the Legislature to discuss the crisis, but this proved unnecessary. The brief period of unrest in Florida that followed Dr. King’s untimely death has been captured in a number of documents and photographs, some of which are shown below.

Governor Claude Kirk meets with state law enforcement officials to discuss a response to the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Governor Claude Kirk meets with state law enforcement officials to discuss a response to the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Crow's Grocery Store, located at 1902 Lake Bradford Road in Tallahassee, Florida, was damaged when a Molotov cocktail firebomb was thrown inside during the unrest following Dr. King's death. Travis Crow, age 19, died of suffocation before he could escape the building.

This photo from the Tallahassee Fire Department Collection depicts one of the casualties of the reaction that followed Dr. King’s assassination. Crow’s Grocery Store, located at 1902 Lake Bradford Road in Tallahassee, Florida, was damaged when a Molotov cocktail firebomb was thrown inside. Travis Crow, age 19, died of suffocation before he could escape the building.

This Associated Press news summary describes some of the typical stories emerging from the widespread reaction to Dr. King's assassination.

This Associated Press news summary describes some of the typical stories emerging from the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination.

The Florida Photographic Collection contains more images depicting Dr. Martin Luther King, his activities in Florida over the years, and the efforts of Floridians across the state to honor his memory.

Teachers and students may also find the Black History Month resources of our Online Classroom helpful, as well as our learning unit entitled The Civil Rights Movement in Florida.

Detour to Liberty: Black Troops in Florida during the Civil War

In his annual message to the Florida General Assembly on November 17, 1862, Governor John Milton pointed to Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed freedom for all slaves living in areas of the country still in rebellion by January 1863, as a plot to “subjugate Florida . . . and to colonize the State with negroes . . . .”

The proclamation was, Milton argued, nothing less than “the means the most terrific which could be devised to alarm the people of the South . . . .” As Milton feared, the Emancipation Proclamation came to pass on January 1, 1863, but the alarm that sounded across the South was soon compounded by the Union’s deployment of black troops against the Confederacy.

Beginning in March 1863, Florida was the site of some of the earliest operations of black regiments, which became an essential part of Union operations in the state until the end of the war.

Drawing of a black Union infantryman

Drawing of a black Union infantryman

As early as November 1862, black companies conducted raids against salt works and saw mills along both sides of the coastal border between Georgia and Florida. These attacks were the outgrowth of the U.S. War Department’s order of August 25, 1862. That order allowed the creation of a limited number of black units within the U.S. Army’s Department of the South, which was responsible for military operations along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
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Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Three)

The Black Seminoles

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. We conclude with the story of the Black Seminoles.

Runaway slaves forged close alliances with the Florida Seminoles in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Historians struggle to find an appropriate term for persons of African descent living in Seminole Country. In Florida, these people came to be known to historians as “Black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.”

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Prior to the Seminole Wars, Black Seminole communities could be found near Old Town on the Suwannee River, north of Tampa at Pilaklikaha, and near modern day Sarasota at a settlement sometimes referred to as Angola. Other smaller Black Seminole settlements existed throughout this range.

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

On several occasions Seminoles and their African allies banded together in the defense of their homelands.

In 1812, a combined force of Africans and Seminoles repelled Georgians known as the “Patriot Army” who intended to capture slaves and seize parts of Spanish Florida for the United States.

The success against the Patriot Army was followed by a series of defeats. On July 20, 1816, the Americans destroyed the “Negro Fort” on the Apalachicola River. The fort, built by the British in the closing stages of the War of 1812, held hundreds of defenders who were killed when a heated cannon ball blew up the powder magazine.

The American drive to acquire Florida caused further hardship for Black Seminoles. After Andrew Jackson’s slave raid into Spanish Florida, also known as the First Seminole War (1816-1818), most Africans abandoned their towns along the Suwannee River and took refuge further south in the remote interior sections of central Florida.

The number of runaway slaves in Florida increased when the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821. As planters from Georgia and the Carolinas arrived in northern Florida, some of the people they held in bondage escaped and joined the Seminoles. Article VII of the treaty made at Camp Moultrie in September 1823 compelled the Seminoles to be “active and vigilant” in preventing runaway slaves from entering their territory. Moreover, the treaty required Seminoles to “apprehend and deliver” fugitive slaves to federal agents.

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Seminoles and Black Seminoles pushed back when American officials attempted to enforce the Indian Removal Act in Florida. In late 1835 and early 1836, Seminoles and their African allies launched a series of raids on U.S. Army fortifications and attacked sugar plantations in East Florida. Africans enslaved on these plantations fled during the chaos and in many cases joined the Black Seminoles.

These events marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the longest and costliest American Indian War in U.S. history. Because of the prominent role of Africans in the conflict, General Thomas Sidney Jesup famously proclaimed, “This is…a negro, not an Indian war.” Historians consider this statement reflective of southern plantation owners’ fears of the Seminole Wars erupting into a broader slave rebellion.

Abraham, a Black Seminole interpreter, figured prominently in the tense negotiations during the early stages of the Second Seminole War.

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham delivered messages on several occasions to General Jesup from principal Seminole leaders and also participated in talks with U.S. military officials. In the entry below from his field diary, dated March 18, 1837, Jesup mentions spending the “whole evening” in conference with Seminole leaders accompanied by Abraham.

Jesup diary, March 18, 1837

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

The end of the Seminole Wars in 1858 struck a major blow to the aspirations of runaway slaves in Florida. No longer able to find freedom in Seminole Country, runaway slaves increasingly sought the Underground Railroad or, during the Civil War, service in the Union Army as the path to escape slavery.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Two)

Fort Mose

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. This post describes Fort Mose, the first legally-sanctioned free-black community in what is now the United States.

Africans resisted slavery from its inception in the Americas. From the mountains of Jamaica and Brazil, to the swamps of Florida, Africans formed independent communities and forged alliances with Native peoples. In the United States before the Civil War, thousands of slaves sought freedom north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as in Canada, with Native American societies in the South and West, and even in the Bahamas. Africans found refuge in Abolitionist-minded communities, particularly in New England, or, in the case of Florida, with the Seminoles.

Before Florida became a territory of the United States, Spanish Florida offered a haven for freedom-seeking people.

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

Fort Mose, perhaps the best known free-black community in what is now the United States, traces its roots to the late 1600s. In the 1680s, the Spanish organized an African militia unit in St. Augustine to help protect against raids and, in 1693, King Charles II of Spain established legal sanctuary for runaway slaves who reached Florida. Though not all blacks in Florida obtained freedom, the policies of the Spanish government provided a path out of slavery.

Free blacks established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose just north of St. Augustine in 1739. The settlement contained Fort Mose, depicted on the map above as “Fuerte Negro,” and the homes of its defenders and their families. On several occasions the free-black militia participated in the defense of their city against English and Native American invaders.

In 1763, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War), the residents of Fort Mose left Florida for Cuba with the Spaniards and Christian Indians (Apalachee and Timucuan) living in St. Augustine before the war; some Africans returned when Spain resumed control of Florida in 1783.

In Black Society in Spanish Florida, historian Jane Landers documents several African-owned plantations in East Florida during the Second Spanish period. Some grants, such as the one below awarded to Prince Juan Bautista Wiet (or Witten), resulted from loyal service to the Crown.

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Freedom in Spanish Florida required military service and acceptance of Catholicism. Many free blacks continued to practice a mixture of African-based and adopted foreign beliefs. Africans living in the Spanish colonies also joined secular and religious mutual aid organizations known as cabildos and cofradías.

Much is written on the role of African men in Spanish Florida, particularly their military service in defense of St. Augustine. African women also contributed to the economy, owned land, and engaged the Spanish legal system to their benefit. As with men, African women did not enjoy the same social status as white residents of Spanish Florida, but their conditions and potential for economic advancement exceeded those of many Africans in the Americas until the late 19th century.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

Happy Birthday Eartha M.M. White (November 8, 1876)

Eartha with her mother Clara White: Jacksonville (ca. 1910)

Eartha with her mother Clara White: Jacksonville (ca. 1910)

Eartha M. M. White was a humanitarian, businesswoman and philanthropist from Jacksonville. She created educational opportunities and provided relief to African-Americans in northeastern Florida. White helped found several organizations and institutions, including the Clara White Mission, Mercy Hospital and the Boy’s Improvement Club. She was designated as a Great Floridian by the Florida Department of State in the year 2000.

Troy Demps and African-American Hymn Lining

Hymn liner Troy Demps (left) and apprentice Brian Wright: Orlando (1995)

Hymn liner Troy Demps (left) and apprentice Brian Wright: Orlando (1995)

In recognition of Black History Month, we will highlight the uniquely African-American tradition of hymn lining.

The practice of lining hymns can be traced back to the 17th century when printed hymnals were scarce and many churchgoers—both slaves and whites—could not read.

A church elder or minister who could read would “line out,” or recite a hymn line by line, which in turn was repeated by the congregation. These hymns, such as “Amazing Grace” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” persisted and evolved in African-American churches after emancipation.

As Deacon at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, Troy Demps continues to practice hymn lining, and believes there is a more focused connection with the Holy Spirit among the congregation when the hymnal is set aside. Through the Florida Department of State’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program, he taught hymn lining in order to preserve the tradition and was awarded the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2003.

This podcast features performances from Troy Demps and his apprentices at the Florida Folk Festival as well as a 1995 interview with folklorist Bob Stone.
[audio:http://fpc.dos.state.fl.us/memory/collections/folklife/mp3/podcasts/demps.mp3|titles=Troy Demps and African-American Hymn Lining|artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3

Mary McLeod Bethune

Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina. Mary was one of 16 children born to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod.

Birthplace of Mary McLeod Bethune: Mayesville, South Carolina (late 1800s)

Birthplace of Mary McLeod Bethune: Mayesville, South Carolina (late 1800s)

After completing her studies at the Moody Bible Institute, Bethune moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1904 to start her own school. She taught reading, writing and home economics to African-American girls in a one-room schoolhouse. Bethune’s modest school eventually became the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls.

Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls from her school: Daytona Beach, Florida (ca. 1905)

Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls from her school: Daytona Beach, Florida (ca. 1905)

In 1931, the institution started by Mary McLeod Bethune became Bethune-Cookman College. Learn more about the life and achievements of Mary McLeod Bethune, including the founding of Bethune-Cookman College and her impact on civil rights, on Florida Memory.

Mary McLeod Bethune (ca. 1904)

Mary McLeod Bethune (ca. 1904)

UPDATE: On Tuesday, February 28, 2012, Governor Rick Scott announced the first inductees into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame: Mary McLeod Bethune, Claude Denson Pepper and Charles Kenzie Steele. Established by the Florida Legislature in 2010, the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame recognizes individuals who made significant contributions in furthering civil rights for all Floridians.

Patricia Stephens Due (December 9, 1939 – February 7, 2012)

Patricia Stephens Due at Civil rights demonstration in front of segregated theater: Tallahassee, Florida (1963)

Patricia Stephens Due at a civil rights demonstration in front of a segregated theater: Tallahassee, Florida (1963)

Civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due passed away on Tuesday, February 7, at the age of 72.

Due, a native of Quincy, Florida, led demonstrations and voter-registration drives in Tallahassee during the height of the Civil Rights movement. She was among a group of students from Florida A&M University jailed for attempting to integrate a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s department store in downtown Tallahassee on February 20, 1960.

Due and 8 of her companions from the Woolworth’s sit-in refused to pay a $300 fine, opting instead to serve jail time. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized their determination in the struggle for civil rights and sent letters to the jail. Other civil rights leaders including Jackie Robinson also contacted the group of 8 in the Leon County Jail.

Due penned a letter while in the Leon County Jail, detailing her commitment to civil rights and recounting the Woolworth’s sit-in. She participated in many other demonstrations in Tallahassee in the 1960s, joined several civil rights organizations and served as the field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality in Tallahassee.

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks proclaimed May 11, 2011 “Patricia Stephens Due Day,” recognizing her critical role in and contributions to the Civil Rights movement in Tallahassee and beyond.

Sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter - Tallahassee, Florida

Sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter: Tallahassee, Florida (1960)