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COVER STORY | Vol. 8, No. 27, July 17, 2008
(Pensacola's 450 Years of Race History)

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Pensacola's 450 Years of Race History

by Scott Satterwhite
450 Years of Diversity Nobody Wants To Celebrate

One subject that played a major role in shaping Pensacola throughout its 450 years cannot be found in the city's year-and-a-half-long celebration of its milestone anniversary.

That subject is race.

Pensacola recently launched its observation of the 450th anniversary of its discovery by Europeans. On the calendar of events are a commemoration of the landing of Don Tristan de Luna, events highlighting the Spanish role in early Pensacola and re-enactments of the battles that led to Pensacola being called "a city of five flags."

Race remains a hidden issue buried or simply non-existent in most official history books on the area. Yet many of the events crucial to Pensacola's story revolve around race and the interaction of the Europeans, Native Americans, African-Americans and others who have impacted the region.

The very event heralded as the birth of Pensacola in 1559-the arrival of de Luna-is, in fact, racially nuanced. The Spanish explorer was not alone but was accompanied by a crew and passengers totaling 1,500. Among the passengers were hundreds of Spanish colonists, as well as Aztec soldiers from Mexico and African slaves who were forced into the expedition.

As far as Native American contact, there was none.

"De Luna saw some evidence of Indians, but (he made) no contact until they went north into Alabama," says Jane Dysart, professor emeritus of history at the University of West Florida.

While de Luna had hoped to find natives here, most had either died from diseases they encountered during Hernando de Soto's expedition years earlier or they had hidden from the doomed colony.

A massive hurricane that hit within two months of de Luna's arrival destroyed hopes of a settlement in Pensacola. His expedition returned to Mexico without making significant contact with natives to this region.

Andres de Arriola established the first permanent settlement in Pensacola in 1698. Arriola's expedition was made up of soldiers, Catholic missionaries and a large number of convicts from the jails of Mexico City.

Ethnically speaking, this group of colonists was most likely comprised of European Spaniards, Creoles and Mestizos from Mexico. This was the diverse face of the second Pensacola.

The Native American Swindle

While they were not the original inhabitants of the local area, Native Americans who moved into the region soon found the colonists and established contact. Relations between the Native Americans and Europeans colonizing this area vacillated between easy and strained. Issues of trade and land were problematic. When relations were good, trade was good. When relations soured, depending on the circumstances, the result was diplomatic breaks with the Europeans or brief wars against the mostly white colonists.

The Spanish and French occupations were marked by these skirmishes with the Natives. However, at the end of the French-Indian war, Pensacola changed hands again as the British took control of Pensacola.

Under British rule, a number of Scottish tradesmen came to the area to take part in the lucrative trade with the various Native American tribes, specifically the Creek and Muskogee. Having established trade relationships with the local tribes, a Scotsman named William Panton helped establish the powerful Panton, Leslie and Company, which specialized in the Indian trade.

The trade relationship was strengthened by their silent partner-Alexander McGillivray. His father was Scottish and his mother was Creek. Having a powerbase in both cultures, McGillivray worked his way to prominence and eventually led the Lower Creek Nation.

Panton, Leslie and Company trading post is prominent in early Pensacola history, and is showcased in an exhibit at the T.T. Wentworth Museum and in a replica of the building at Main and Spring streets. An important piece of the local economy and a point of interaction between Natives and Europeans, the trade practices of the Panton, Leslie and Company proved disastrous for many Natives.

The local Native Americans had traded with the Europeans for years, usually on the barter system. The British introduced credit and interest, and many local Creeks, unfamiliar with the credit system, found themselves indebted to Panton, Leslie and Company.

Since much of the debt owed was to people living just outside of direct Spanish control, special deals were made with the Americans to trade land for debt. The Native populations saw their ancestral lands taken by white creditors.

This further factionalized the Creeks and eventually led to armed conflict with the Americans north of Pensacola.

"The growing dependence of the powerful Creek confederacy on European goods undermined their autonomy," Adam Oliver writes in his essay "The Destruction of Muskogee Autonomy Before the Creek War" for the Loyola University Historical Journal. "The way of life that the Upper Creeks strove to hold onto was destroyed by the onslaught of European trade."

After a number of battles and massacres between the Americans and the Creeks, Gen. Andrew Jackson led campaigns against the Native Americans near Pensacola. The controversial American general captured Pensacola during the War of 1812 and again in 1817, during the First Seminole War.

The Fleeing Of Free Blacks

An American occupation of Pensacola, both under Jackson and afterward, held different meanings, depending on the color of one's skin. For whites, there was confusion over property rights' issues with Spanish Florida passing into American hands. For Native Americans, there was the very real possibility of death, imprisonment or forced removal. For those of African ancestry, the threat of enslavement loomed with the American invasion.

 "When the territory of Florida became part of the United States, the region, including Pensacola, became much more racialized, and, thus, American," says Matt Clavin, UWF professor of history. "While Latin America and the greater Atlantic world were no strangers to racial hierarchies and racism, the antebellum South had a peculiar brand of slavery that was, in fact, much more racially stratified. With statehood, Florida (and Pensacola) lost most of its appeal for free people of color."

Several Africans joined a British-sponsored attempt to fight back against the American invasion of Florida. Originally, the British recruited ex-slaves to take part in battle against the Americans.

As word spread about a heavily armed fort comprised of escaped slaves, hundreds more went to the military compound seeking refuge even after the British had departed. The fort was occupied by the renegade soldiers and their families. The U.S. Army made it a top priority to smash what had become known as Fort Negro.

The black, Creole and Seminole troops in Fort Negro were successful in thwarting an initial attack against the heavily armed fort. Then, an American cannonball hit a magazine that instantly destroyed the fort.

Of the 300 men, women and children in Fort Negro, 30 survived the explosion, according to the historical marker at the site. The U.S. Army executed the surviving leaders, and the remaining survivors were returned to slavery.

Other blacks fled the country rather than have the possibility of being enslaved by the Americans, according to "The Ebony Tale of Pensacola," a history of the local African-American experience by Georgia M. Smith.

Blacks set sail for the recently founded Republic of Haiti or for Mexico. Slavery had become unpopular in Mexico and was officially abolished unconditionally by the late 1820s. Most of the new immigrants to Mexico would not return to Pensacola until slavery was finally abolished after the Civil War.

The free blacks remaining in Pensacola were assigned white guardians, mostly from prominent local families such as Moreno, Bobe, de La Rua and Gonzalez. A small number of these African-Americans were eventually sold into slavery.

"Imagine the feelings of these proud, free Negroes, some with large proportions of Spanish blood, who owned considerable property, served on juries with their white friends and held a respected place in community life," Smith writes in "The Ebony Tale of Pensacola." "Such a guardianship was equivalent to the stigma of slavery and must have been a severe blow to their pride."

The fear of American slavery was realized with Jackson, but slavery in Pensacola was different from other parts of the Deep South. Plantation slavery was not common. Slave owners rented out their slaves for a variety of projects.

Pensacola can thank slaves for some of its most famous landmarks-installations such as the Pensacola Navy Yard and Fort Barrancas.

"Most military fortifications were made using slave labor," says Amanda Grissom, a park interpreter with the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which operates Fort Barrancas.

At the time, it was illegal for the U.S. Army to use slave labor. However, it was not illegal to hire contractors who used slave labor. Most of the men who built Fort Barrancas came to Pensacola by way of a New Orleans contractor, Grissom says.

Fort Barrancas, located on Pensacola Naval Air Station, took 60 men five years to complete.

"Most people are surprised to hear that slaves built this fort," Grissom says. "They think that soldiers built (Fort Barrancas). But it was slaves.

"The slaves who built this fort had a tremendous amount of pride in their work," she adds. "This (craft) was passed down from family to family and was very skilled labor. Some of the bricks would take up to an hour and a half to make. For 60 men in five years to build something like this wasamazing, simply amazing."

During the Civil War, Fort Barrancas saw action in a battle where Confederate forces, who took over the fort, fought Union forces stationed across Pensacola Bay at Fort Pickens.

After the Union victory over Pensacola early in the war, the Confederate Army and most of the city's residents fled to Alabama. Ironically, Fort Barrancas was then occupied for most of the war by one of the first African-American military regiments.

Reconstruction Upheaval

The Civil War was followed by one of the most radical social upheavals in American history: Reconstruction.

The Reconstruction Era brought dramatic changes throughout the South and Pensacola was no exception. The city saw its first African-American police officers and several African-Americans elected to city government, including Pensacola's first and only black mayor, Salvador Pons, whose history remains largely unexplored.

During Reconstruction, Pensacola experienced incredible economic growth, particularly in lumber, which insulated the city from the economic woes of most of the post-war South.

The area's African-American population grew as the demand for labor increased.

Unions organized workers in the lumber industry and on the railroads and docks. At the time, organized labor had considerable power throughout Florida. Locally, African-American dock workers organized the Workingman's Association, which helped protect its members' jobs.

Canadian lumber and dock workers began to arrive in Northwest Florida after cold weather seasonally forced many Canadians out of work. As the numbers of Canadian laborers began to compete with African-American organized labor, the Workingman's Association took direct action to force the non-union Canadians to leave the city.

In one instance, in 1873, several laborers, "armed with pistols and clubs prevented the foreigners from going to work on the docks," Jerrell Shoffner writes in his article "Militant Negro Labor in Reconstruction Florida" in the Journal of Southern History.

After the Canadians retreated, African-American laborers "pursued them and systematically searched the entire town for the unwelcome competitors from Quebec," Shoffner writes.

An armed vigil throughout the city prevented the Canadians' return. Complaints from the local British consulate fell on deaf ears locally until the consulate approached the commanding officer of the Navy Yard, who sent a detachment of Marines to restore order.

The military squelched this momentary outbreak of potential violence. But African-American dock workers continued to guard the port to prevent the Canadian workers from taking their jobs.

This left several logging ships offshore, and cargo could not be loaded or unloaded while the disturbances persisted. The labor dispute finally ended when the foreign workers returned to Canada as temperatures thawed there.

The Last Of The Apaches

By the late 1800s, most of the local Native American population had been killed off by disease, had joined the Seminoles in their long war against the U.S. government, or had been forced from the area by the Indian Removal Act. Still, Native American issues occasionally arose.

The most famous of these issues concerned a Native American who was not, in fact, a native to this area. Geronimo, an Apache chief and medicine man, had fought the U.S. government's attempts in the Arizona Territory to push the Apaches off their land and onto reservations. Geronimo resisted for a decade, but was eventually worn down by the U.S. Army and captured. The proud warrior was then shipped by train to Florida as a prisoner.

At the bequest of prominent local business leaders, the Apache warrior was sent to Pensacola, where he and dozens of other Apache men, women, and children were turned into a tourist attraction.

Geronimo recounts his journey to Pensacola in his memoirs: "In forty days they took me from there to Fort Pickens (Pensacola), Florida. Here they put me to sawing up large logs. There were several other Apache warriors with me, and all of us had to work every day. For nearly two years we were kept at hard labor in this place and we did not see our families until May 1887. This treatment was in direct violation of our treaty made at Skeleton Canyon."

Geronimo was eventually sent to another federal installation in Alabama and then to Oklahoma. This was a great disappointment to area business leaders, who looked at the Apaches and Geronimo's imprisonment as a money-making opportunity. Geronimo left Pensacola, but remained a prisoner and sideshow attraction for the rest of his life, including being featured in 1904 at the World's Fair in St. Louis.

Jim Crow's Terror

Pensacola's African-American community continued to grow as the 19th century drew to a close. Pensacola was predominantly black, according to the 1900 census.

The African-American educator Booker T. Washington famously described Pensacola in this era as a "typical Negro business community." The Pensacola that Washington described was one that had recently boasted a black mayor, black city aldermen, black police officers, and a thriving African-American business community that served the entire community, along with a large black middle class.

A renewal of racial tensions and the advent of Jim Crow racial separation laws forced long-standing black businesses out of the downtown area, removed residents from their neighborhoods, eliminated job openings to blacks and began to disenfranchise black voters from government.

In addition to Jim Crow, the rise in local lynching created a traumatizing effect on the African-American community. Beginning in the late 1800s, Escambia County was the scene of several lynching instances. These included the prominent hanging of two African-American men in the center of Ferdinand Plaza, with hundreds of white residents in attendance.

Although the majority of Pensacola was black in 1900, whites in the city progressively became less tolerant of non-whites. By 1920, the black population decreased by half.

The Ku Klux Klan was revived and white supremacists began to become a powerful force locally. If white public officials were not secret members, many were sympathetic to the KKK. The Klan held demonstrations, openly presented awards to ministers in churches and occasionally flexed its muscle to hassle blacks, immigrants (especially Greeks) and Catholics.

Civil Rights Conflicts

Throughout much of the 20th century, race continued to play an important role in local politics. A quarter of the city's population was forced to remain separated from the white majority. While conflict and resentment over segregation brewed, the advent of World War II forced a dramatic movement to change the South. Again, Pensacola was no exception.

During the war, occasional conflicts erupted over law enforcement's treatment of African-American troops stationed at local military bases, according to James McGovern's history of early 20th century Pensacola, "The Emergence of a City in the Modern South."

After Victory in Europe Day, returning black servicemen began to assert themselves in demanding equal treatment for their equal sacrifice during the war. For soldiers to fight fascism and racism in Europe only to return to the South and find similar sentiments in their own states was too much for many to bear.

People began to organize against these injustices. One of the first major battles was in the schools.

Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 opened the doors to formerly segregated schools to African-American children, but the ruling took some time to trickle down to the local level.

In 1960, the "separate but equal" policy in Escambia County public schools was shattered by an African-American physician named Charles Augustus, who wanted to have his daughter, Karen, attend O.J. Semmes Elementary School. The case was taken to federal court, where the judge ruled in favor of the Augustus family in 1961.

That year, over 200 black students applied for reassignment.

 Escambia County schools experienced another major eruption of racial tension when in 1972 race riots broke out at a football game. Escambia High, whose mascot was a Confederate soldier, had been forcibly desegregated only three years earlier. The public school continued to fly the Rebel Flag and play "Dixie" as its school song over the objection of African-American students who felt the symbols were offensive.

Karen Augustus, the young woman who helped desegregate local schools, lent her name to a lawsuit that challenged the right of the school to use the offending symbols. At first, Augustus won her case, but an appeals court overturned the decision and said the school board should decide.

A vote was held on whether to change the mascot. On Feb. 4, 1976, the Rebel mascot lost by failing to gain a supermajority of the board's vote.

The next day a riot ensued. Four students were shot and several more were injured. Days later, crosses burned in several of the county school board members' yards. By the fall of 1976, Escambia High students, hurt by the violence of the previous school year, voted to change their mascot to the Gators.

Today's Race Wounds

Pensacola has witnessed public struggles against racism, such as the fight to desegregate the lunch counters downtown. Other struggles took place in the courts, such as the Augustus case to integrate O.J. Semmes. Often, the actions of outside parties, such as the U.S. Navy or the federal government, were critical in helping to exact justice in Pensacola.

"Intervention has always been necessary in history, by government or public entities," says Robin Reshard, host of the public affairs program "Connecting Our Community" on PBS-affiliate WSRE. "Some of it is bold, some of it is subtle, but intervention has always been necessary."

While progress has been made in race relations in Pensacola, much of it has been symbolic. Still, as the Escambia High School riots demonstrated, symbols are important.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and the memorial to King in downtown Pensacola are two symbols of the city's evolving approach to race.

Civil rights leaders and organizations such as Movement for Change fought hard to have the Alcaniz Street renamed for King. The name change took place in 2000, after the Pensacola City Council voted against renaming the street several times.

Placing a bust of King on Palafox Street in 1993 was a less controversial issue. Ironically, though, King's bust overlooks a block where Jim Crow laws forced a number of African-American businesses out of downtown. Now, the bust is "silently guarding the area against (the return of) Jim Crow,'" as Smith puts it in her local history.

"People have needed bold personalities who are willing to step up and say, We're not going to let this happen!'" Reshard says. "Because when people are silent, bad things are allowed to happen."

The Rev. H.K. Matthews was one such bold leader. The longtime civil rights activist was held at Florida State Prison in the mid-1970s and once listed as a political prisoner by the Southern Christian Leadership Council for his civil rights activism. Matthews now has a city park on 12th Avenue in Pensacola named after him.

Racial discrimination, though, continues, for instance, being named as a contributing factor in law enforcement shootings of civilians, bias in local government and insensitivities in the Fiesta of Five Flags celebration.

In 2005, a series of discussions focused on disparity in the community. The series, sponsored by the city and the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, was entitled "A Profile of Pensacola and Escambia County."

"What often triggers discussion is something negative, like a discrimination case or a shooting," says Reshard, who hosted the series. "But if you don't discuss the problems or challenges, they persist. And oftentimes, these wounds are left to fester."

The wounds of the past, unaddressed, may contribute to ongoing racial prejudice.

"(The continued segregation) in some parts of the community is driven by that history of racism," says James James of the African-American Heritage Society. "This is a history we need to come to terms with. How that happens is another story."

Still, Reshard is hopeful about the city's future.

"I think Pensacola's going in a great direction," she says. "I think that people across ethnic lines are having discussions on race. It makes the government and public officials realize that people are talking and it can help compel a public official to work in a good direction."

Lauren Anzaldo contributed to this story.