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Thursday October 17th 2019

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“Black Citizenship in Action”

Pensacola’s Forgotten History of Reconstruction
By C. Scott Sattewhite

During a 2013 episode of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Pensacola’s own Joe Scarborough interviewed his old friend and recently elected Florida State Representative Mike Hill. A leader in the Northwest Florida Tea Party, Mike Hill’s election was historic. Scarborough said, “You’re the first Republican African American man elected to the state legislature since the Civil War, since Reconstruction.” Hill was quick to correct Scarborough. “You called me an African American,” Hill said. “I’m an American. This is my country.”

Since that interview, however, numerous Republicans quickly turned on Hill after a controversy over his handling of anti-gay remarks at a Pensacola speaking event. As Governor DeSantis signed into law a “sanctuary city” bill in Shalimar that Hill co-sponsored, supporter James Calkins said a fellow Republican politician told him that Hill was not welcome at the signing.

While Calkins saw Hill’s election representing Florida District 1 as a “victory for the Republican Party and a victory for diversity in our state,” he was bothered by Hill’s recent treatment. “I believe there are certain people out there in society that are still racist,” said Calkins, though he wasn’t sure if that played a role in Hill’s perceived snub in Shalimar.

Nevertheless, Calkins gave a pointed response to the press after the event, “Mike Hill is the first African American elected Republican in the state, and he should be treated like everybody else.”

Yet, as Scarborough pointed out, Hill was not the first “Republican African American man elected to state legislature,” only the first since Reconstruction.

The two-word omission, “since Reconstruction,” may seem like a minor distinction—one that Calkins later corrected in a phone interview. Minor or not, the absence of the phrase leaves out a major part of American, in particular, African American, history often forgotten.

According to an American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) survey of university seniors at the “Top 50” colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report, only 29% could identify the definition of “Reconstruction” in a multiple-choice question.

For the 71% who might vaguely remember the words “scalawag” and “carpetbagger” from a history class, but remember little else about Reconstruction, here’s a definition, courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica—“Reconstruction is the period that followed the American Civil War and during which attempts were made to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social and economic legacy and to solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 states that had seceded at or before the outbreak of war.”

For a nation fixated on the Civil War, why is Reconstruction forgotten history? The reasons behind Reconstruction’s neglected status could be a result of several factors, from time management in the classroom to racially-biased interpretations of American history. Reconstruction also covers difficult subject matter—voter disenfranchisement, reparations and horrific racist violence—making the standard uplifting and unifying narrative of American history difficult for some to process when nearly the same issues are in today’s headlines.
As troubling as some aspects of Reconstruction are, the violence often overshadows what is now being viewed as a “grand experiment in interracial democracy,” according to the Zinn Education Project. “In a moment where activists are struggling to make black lives matter—every student should probe the relevance of Reconstruction.”

For those looking to investigate this history on the local level, the challenges are immense. Sparse records, conflicting secondary sources and possibly the deliberate destruction of records only makes the search that much more difficult for amateurs and professionals alike.

“A period of maximum black freedom”
In doing her investigations into Pensacola’s Creole community, local historian Leora Sutton found researching the post-Civil War period challenging to say the least.

Throughout her career, Sutton worked on several historical projects with famed local historians Thomas Wentworth and Jesse Earl Bowden, and she scoured the local archives researching for her books. She wrote, “It was a loss for the historians when the city officials deliberately destroyed all their records that could enlighten us on city government immediately after the Civil War.”

Sutton died in 2018 at the age of 101. She leaves no footnote to this anecdote, but the absence of information from this period suggests some validity to her claim.

Further troubling the research, much of the secondary source information—newspaper articles, books and websites—give conflicting information about the era’s major figures, further clouding the historic memory of Pensacola’s Reconstruction.

For those who see history as more than trivia, but as a tool to understand the present, a study of Reconstruction reads like current events. One such public intellectual is Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In an interview supporting his recent PBS documentary “Reconstruction: American after the Civil War,” Gates told NPR why he wanted to focus on Reconstruction now. “Reconstruction was a period of maximum black freedom, followed by an alt-right rollback,” said Gates. “What’s that sound like?”

For Gates, a Harvard professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Reconstruction is an important period in American history in which “black people experienced more freedom and more rights than in any other time in American history,” only to see that progress moved backwards.

What drew Gates to focus on Reconstruction was less about the era’s historical importance but instead was what he was seeing in our current moment of political and racial polarization. Looking back on the first African American presidency, followed by a rise in hate crimes and racial tensions nationwide during the 2016 presidential campaign, Gates drew connections between the past and present, “What we were witnessing was Reconstruction redux.”

During times of uncertainty, people often turn to history for guidance. But in this instance, locally at least, this may be a problem.

Whether or not some Pensacolians deliberately destroyed the city’s historical records of this era is difficult to determine, but there is no doubt the files are minimal and thus the story of Reconstruction minimized.

On a national scale, early histories of Reconstruction, written by white historians, presented the period as an abhorrent moment rife with corruption. Corrective histories, such as W.E.B. DuBois’ “Black Reconstruction,” countered the anti-black histories of the era, but even DuBois was no match for the white establishment’s stereotypes of this era.

Popular historical films such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind,” as well as the books that inspired them, gave the white public a perception of the era that sticks even to this day. These popular works reached national and regional audiences. Local white audiences interpreted these skewed versions of history into their own understanding of the era.

“An era of promise”
Teniade Broughton is the organizer of the Black Pensacola Oral History Project, and she grew up in the city. She said her first exposure to the Reconstruction Era was in the local schools where her classes watched historical films.

“We watched ‘Gone with the Wind’ in middle school, where Reconstruction was presented as mourning the loss of the Southern way of life,” said Broughton.

While she said she identified with the “passive resistance” of the film’s black characters, white classmates likely had different experiences.

When Broughton attended Booker T. Washington High School, she took an African American history class and saw Reconstruction in a new light.

“It was the first time Black Reconstruction was presented [to me] as an era of promise,” said Broughton.

Further stoking her interest in history, local educator Ora Wills asked Broughton to work as a researcher for a local African American history book, featuring more of Pensacola’s Reconstruction history. Broughton continued her study of African American history at Florida A&M University, where she “learned about these local figures more in depth.”

“From a black history class to a black history book and an HBCU, I realized the topic is excluded from the overall American historical narrative,” said Broughton. “Black spaces center black stories.”

The typical American history classroom, however, is rarely a black space that centers black stories.

While the story of Reconstruction is not entirely African American history, it is certainly a narrative of interracial government, as well as one of intense white backlash. From the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to the slow implementation of Jim Crow laws, Reconstruction history is not always uplifting, making some educators avoid the subject.

“Reconstruction has often been ignored because it is one of the darkest periods in U.S. history,” said Matthew Clavin.

The author of “Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers” and a forthcoming book, “The Battle of Negro Fort,” Clavin teaches at the University of Houston.

Explaining why many educators might not teach Reconstruction, Clavin stated, “Violent race riots and truly horrific lynchings are painful things to revisit, especially in a nation dedicated to freedom and democracy.”

The story of Reconstruction, in many ways, is one of African American empowerment. The period is also the scene of tremendous violence, and these contrasts are difficult for some to grasp. The continuous advances African Americans achieved were taken apart piece-by-piece following a controversial presidential election in 1876.

The period begins with the hope of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, followed by interracial democratic progress, but ends with racial terrorism and anti-democratic measures aimed at curbing African American political power.

“When black people don’t have political power en masse, then oppression is going to spread,” said Paul Ortiz.

Ortiz directs the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida and sits on the Zinn Education Project’s “Teach Reconstruction” advisory board. He is the author of “An African American and Latinx History of the United States” and “Emancipation Betrayed.”

Ortiz draws connections between Reconstruction politics and the recent “Amendment 4 Campaign” to restore felon voting rights in Florida, a measure that calls back to the Florida Constitution of 1868.

“That struggle we saw in 2019 in the Florida Legislature could’ve happened in 1868. In fact, it did happen in 1868,” said Ortiz. “The struggle back then was, how can we limit the gains of this revolution that we just saw, which was the Civil War and Emancipation? How can we limit black political power as much as possible? How can we limit those gains of black citizenship as much as possible? To me, that’s the moment we’re still living in.”

A different city
To understand better the scope of the moment locally, a brief history is necessary.

Reconstruction in Pensacola began with the 1862 retreat of Confederate forces from Fort Barrancas and President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Both events allowed for the introduction of armed African American troops to enter Pensacola.

Prior to 1863, slavery was legal in Florida, and Pensacola had a very large free and enslaved black population. Following the Confederate government’s 1862 retreat to Greenville, Ala., the city was effectively out of the Confederacy. Fort Pickens, located on Pensacola Beach, never fell to Confederate forces, and Fort Barrancas, located on NAS Pensacola, was only Confederate for a little longer than a year. By the end of the war, both Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas eventually housed African American soldiers from the 25th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).

Six companies of the 25th USCT served at Barrancas and four served at Fort Pickens. Many of these soldiers fought skirmishes around Fort Barrancas and notably in Mobile Bay during one of the war’s last battles. Several USCT soldiers died of wounds and disease and are buried at Barrancas National Cemetery.

When the war ended, the troops stayed in Pensacola for the immediate aftermath of the war. Pensacola wasn’t destroyed like other Southern towns, largely because the city was in Union hands for most of the war, but there was still no effective government.

When Pensacola’s Confederates returned, they returned to a different city.

The white Confederates were no longer in power and had to reckon with military government of the U.S. Army. In some instances, they also had to face the people they formerly enslaved, but now as equals. After the war, Confederates had to regain their rights by taking loyalty oaths. They pledged allegiance to the United States and, most importantly, officially recognized that slavery was no more.

Despite the best efforts of the military government, there was great confusion throughout the state. Instead of surrendering, Florida’s Confederate governor committed suicide, only adding to the post-war chaos. The daily bureaucratic functions of government, including archiving records, were not a top priority for many officials simply trying to make the system work in the wake of war.

During the aftermath of the war, with the intervention of military governments and martial law, Pensacola’s African American population was eager to help rebuild the city’s government into one that treated them as equals.

The time to rebuild the government was here, and from Pensacola’s black population arose major figures of the era. As with most of these men, their surviving records are scant. Even published academic histories, well documented as these may be, occasionally present conflicting information. “That’s part of the general tragedy of historical preservation of this era,” said Ortiz. “We just capture these glimpses.”

Mayor Pons
One of the most prominent of these men was Pensacola’s first and only African American mayor to date—Salvador Pons.

According to several sources, Pons was born in Mexico in 1835. He is listed in the 1850 census and legally wed Mary Eliza McDuff at St. Michael’s Church in 1859, both of which speak to his status as a “Free Man of Color” and are important distinctions in a slave society. Pons was a bricklayer by trade but took to political work quickly after the war.

Besides mayor, Pons held many elected and appointed positions in local government, including Pensacola clerk and city councilman. According to Canter Brown’s exhaustive history “Florida’s Black Pubic Officials: 1867-1924,” Pons was not only Pensacola’s first African American mayor but also Escambia County’s first African American state representative, initially serving in 1868 with several other terms until at least 1875.

Pons was well-known and respected throughout Pensacola’s African American and white communities. The former Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, once even famously described Pons as “the honest, honorable and fit representative of Escambia County.”

Bricklayer turned politician, Pensacola’s first African American state representative and only black mayor died at the age of 55, in 1890, of “consumption.” According to an obituary in the Daily News, “the death of Salvador T. Pons removes a familiar figure from the streets and political circles of Pensacola.”

More Key Figures
Another major figure of the era was Zebulon Elijah. Elijah was born into slavery in Santa Rosa County but made his name well-known during Reconstruction. Elijah served in the Florida State House of Representatives from 1871 to 1873. In the House of Representatives, he served on the Committee on Commerce and Navigation, where he co-sponsored and introduced several bills relating to the navigation of Florida’s numerous waterways.

As a means to curb corruption at the federal and state levels, President Ulysses S. Grant prohibited “persons holding any Federal civil office by appointment” from holding state or local positions.

Elijah subsequently resigned from the Florida House of Representatives to receive a federal appointment.

President Grant then officially nominated Elijah to the position of deputy postmaster on January 29, 1874. He served in this position until 1878.

Elijah died in 1910. In a letter to the Pensacola Journal, a local resident wrote of Elijah, “For nearly 25 years, ‘Zeb,’ as he has been known to almost all the older residents of Pensacola, has been in the service of the business with which I am connected. During all that time, he has commended himself to all with whom he came in contact, as a gentleman. His rank has not been exalted, but his honesty, faithfulness and courtesy endeared him to us all.”

Since the demolition of his historic home in 2016, John Sunday, Jr. became one of the most recognizable figures from the era—black or white. The controversy that arose after his home’s destruction practically made the Reconstruction politician a household name again in the city he helped build. News articles, class discussions and history fairs throughout the area told Sunday’s extraordinary biography.

Born into slavery to a white father and an enslaved African mother, Sunday’s father legally freed him upon his death. Sunday worked as a carpenter’s apprentice until the war. As many white Pensacolians joined the Confederate Army, including his white half-brother, Sunday joined the U.S. Army. He first served in the 6th Regiment of the Corps d’Afrique, which later became the 78th USCT. According to his military service record, Sunday joined the Army on May 15, 1863, and was discharged as a first sergeant after the war. He returned to Pensacola, where he used his carpentry skills to build a lucrative business following the war.

Politically, Sunday was active in Florida’s Republican Party and served in the Florida House of Representatives in 1874, as well as several years in the Pensacola city council from the late 1870s until Governor Edward Perry abolished the city government in 1885. Perry replaced the multiracial Republican government with handpicked Democratic Party appointees, including several former Confederates. The only African American to serve in the post-Reconstruction government was a well-known African Methodist Episcopal pastor and disgruntled Republican-turned-Democrat named George Washington Witherspoon. Sunday would not hold political office again but instead focused on building his community.

Sunday continued to serve Pensacola’s black residents, not only by building homes, but also by helping to establish the Belmont-DeVilliers area following the racist implementation of “Jim Crow” laws in the early 1900s. Sunday aided in the establishment of St. Joseph Catholic Church and was personally lauded in Booker T. Washington’s 1907 book “The Negro in Business.” He also served as the post commander for the Pensacola chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, a U.S. Army veteran organization.

When he died in 1925, the Pensacola Journal summed up his extraordinary life with a short 18-word story—“John Sunday, creole, a lifelong resident of Pensacola, died at his residence on West Romana Tuesday morning.”

The other Reconstruction state representatives from this area fared little better in the white press, and much of their contributions are lost to history.

Besides Pons, Elijah and Sunday, a man named Charlie Rouse served in the House of Representatives in 1874. Rouse was a laborer working in the lumber industry in Molino before, and likely after, serving in his state position.

In 1877, Peter H. Davidson, Sr. served in the state House of Representatives. Born in Monroe County, Ala., in 1813, he lived in Pensacola after the war and listed his occupation as “laborer.”

His son later served in the same political position a decade later.

Between the father and son representatives was a man named Mark S. White. Born in Montgomery in 1851, White was active with the Knights of Labor, a militant interracial labor organization with a strong presence on Pensacola’s docks. Both White and Peter H. Davidson, Jr.—the last African American state representative until 2013—were active with Florida’s Republican Party and the Knights of Labor for years after leaving political office.

“The greatest drama and tragedy in modern history”
Despite Pensacola and Escambia County having large—and at times nearly even— black and white populations, the area’s representation at all levels remained white well into the 20th century.

Throughout the state, as multiracial and working-class Reconstruction governments fell, wealthy tycoons of the Gilded Age saw their opportunity.

Ortiz recounted an often-retold anecdote from the years following Reconstruction where, in one post-Reconstruction legislative session, “the state legislature gave away more land to corporations and railroads than even existed in the state.”

One of Pensacola’s greatest beneficiaries of the post-Reconstruction government was railroad magnate William Chipley. The former Confederate colonel, who prior to moving to Pensacola was implicated in a Ku Klux Klan assassination in Georgia, later served as the mayor of Pensacola.

Upon his death, the city erected an obelisk in his honor, which still stands in Ferdinand Plaza. A massive statue honoring the Confederacy and Governor Edward Perry, the man who single-handedly ended Pensacola’s Reconstruction government, still looks down upon the city from a square named after defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

As for the public memory of Pensacola’s black Reconstruction figures, there is little.

Salvador Pons—who held the same position as Chipley a decade prior—has a small historic marker by his grave in Historic St. Michael Cemetery. That same grave was desecrated in 2003.

Despite a large outcry from hundreds of Pensacola citizens, developers demolished John Sunday’s historic home on West Romana in 2016. Notably, there is a small historic marker placed by one of Sunday’s former buildings in East Pensacola and his image is in the Julee Panton Cottage in the Pensacola Historic District. Nothing nearly on the scale of the post-Reconstruction monuments, and little else about any of the other figures from Pensacola’s Reconstruction era, exists currently on display in Pensacola.

Given the minimal amount of public space and attention, one could be forgiven for not even knowing Reconstruction happened in Pensacola or that African Americans played any significant role in Pensacola’s history prior the modern Civil Rights Movement.

During Pensacola’s Reconstruction era, dozens of African Americans served in political offices. These positions included state representative, superintendent of schools, justice of the peace, marshal, city council, county commission, tax collector, tax assessor and, most notably, the voter registrar. This list does not include the numerous African American citizens who worked in the local bureaucracies, as well as the large presence of African American troops at the local military installations and the newly-enfranchised citizens who simply voted.

Considering only a decade prior to Reconstruction the Supreme Court ruled Americans of African descent had “no rights or privileges” that a white person needed to respect, the political ascent of black Americans in the two decades following the Civil War was incredible. Beginning with military service, moving to birthright citizenship and eventually political office, racial progress unimaginable only a few years before was now reality. Despite the rise of racial violence and a growing white backlash against the interracial Reconstruction governments, great strides toward racial equity came swiftly in the years following the Civil War.

“With the fall of Reconstruction, that virtually ended,” said Ortiz.

“It’s like the democratic genie let out of the bottle for a few years,” said Ortiz. “If you’re a CEO or a big land owner, or you control all of the shipping out of the port, you want to put that genie back in the bottle. You don’t want those longshoremen having the right to dictate the wage and working conditions or domestic servants telling you, ‘Hey, I have my own family that I have to take care of, and I can’t stay overnight because I have my own kids.’”

“What makes Reconstruction remarkable is that for a moment in time, in those constitutional revisions, legislators are adding things like expedited nationalization, expedited voting rights for new naturalized Americans. They’re not even citizens yet, but they’re gaining the right to vote. This only happens because of this mass enfranchisement and this great struggle with black working-class people,” Ortiz said.

“That’s why W.E.B. DuBois says it’s the greatest drama and tragedy in modern history. Period,” said Ortiz. “That’s the cost of the fall of Black Reconstruction.”

“A legacy that survives to this day”
Answering the questions about why so many neglect this period is complicated, but the importance is very clear to historians of the era, and they hope the public takes notice.

“With the declining and depressing state of race relations in America today, Reconstruction provides a model of a similar time and place,” said Clavin. “Sadly, there are many parallels between America today and in the decade or so after the Civil War.”

Clavin points to the rise in hate crimes, police shootings of unarmed black men and the white supremacist murders in Charleston and El Paso as instances that “clearly harken back to the post-Civil War era.”

Nonetheless, Clavin offers guarded optimism, “The U.S. ultimately survived that bleak period, which suggests we will also get through this episode as well.”

Furthermore, Clavin says the public could look to the victories of racial progress from Reconstruction as a map in times of racial tension. “Reconstruction offers some pretty powerful lessons about interracial cooperation and the advantages of diversity,” said Clavin. Both Clavin and Ortiz pointed out the lasting accomplishments of the era as very positive aspects, especially the establishment of public school across the South, including Pensacola.

“This is a legacy that survives to this day,” said Clavin. “Reconstruction must be studied, for it not only helps explain the persistent problem of race but offers some solutions.”

Ortiz agreed. “It’s important to study Reconstruction because it offers us possibilities of what could’ve been and what was for a short period of time,” said Ortiz.

“There were so many incredible accomplishments from Reconstruction that we benefit by learning about because we discover not only what happens when ordinary people gain some political power,” said Ortiz, “but we also get a sense of the possibilities with genuine progressive interracial politics.”

Broughton described Reconstruction as “black citizenship in action.” Among her many projects, including one with the Equal Justice Initiative, Broughton is currently working on an upcoming 2020 exhibit with the UWF Historic Trust covering Pensacola’s African American history.

To Broughton, the study of Pensacola’s Reconstruction era is important as it “shows how African Americans responded to emancipation.”

From the ordinary examples of citizenship to the extraordinary, Broughton sees this history as vital to Pensacola’s story. “To know that black and white citizens voted for black public officials to lead this city challenges white supremacy,” she said.

As historians continue to present a more complete history of Reconstruction, tragedies and triumphs alike, the public may soon learn more about a time when interracial democracy thrived— even in Pensacola. For historians and the public, a fresh look at Reconstruction may offer lessons for those fighting polarization and looking for hope in troubled times.