Florida's notorious past

Florida's notorious past

by digby

We were talking about the Trayvon Martin tragedy the other day and a friend pointed out that Sanford was only about 130 miles from the town of Rosewood, the site of the notorious Rosewood massacre:

Rosewood was a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient whistle stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Spurred by unsupported accusations that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been beaten and possibly raped by a black drifter, white men from nearby towns lynched a Rosewood resident. When black citizens defended themselves against further attack, several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting for black people, and burned almost every structure in Rosewood. Survivors hid for several days in nearby swamps and were evacuated by train and car to larger towns. Although state and local authorities were aware of the violence, they made no arrests for the activities in Rosewood. The town was abandoned by black residents during the attacks. None ever returned.

It turns out that Sanford Florida, where Trayvon was killed, has a history of its own:

[W]hen it comes to a history of fear, racism and violence, Sanford, Florida, has a particularly fraught past, one that traces right up to the night a month ago when an unarmed black kid was shot dead on one of its streets, and his killer went free.

Long before the live oaks and Spanish moss gave way to interstate highways and box stores, Sanford began as a citrus town in the 1870s, conceived by a New England tycoon. Henry Shelton Sanford, who had ingratiated himself to Abraham Lincoln and served as Lincoln's ambassador to Belgium for eight years, had the town built by Swedish laborers. Though the citrus empire he dreamed of didn't exactly flourish, Sanford proved instrumental to promoting trade with the Belgian-controlled territory of Congo—which included his vision of promoting Congo as a place to ship America's freed blacks. The African locale, he said, represented an outlet "for the enterprise and ambition of our colored people in more congenial fields than politics." A Congo peopled with African Americans could be "the ground to draw the gathering electricity from that black cloud spreading over the Southern states."

The back-to-Congo movement never took off, but Sanford's Florida hamlet did. In 1911, it absorbed the town of Goldsborough, an autonomous black community. The merger was hostile, according to local historian Francis Oliver. "[Sanford] never paid restitution to the people who lost their jobs and asked for money because they...no longer [had] jobs," she said. "The mayor didn't have a job, City Council people didn't have a job, the postmistress didn't have a job, the jailers didn't have a job, the marshal didn't have a job."

That sense of alienation hung in the air for decades. Then Jackie Robinson entered the picture. Before he broke Major League Baseball's race barrier in 1947, Robinson played for a Dodgers farm team in Sanford—but only briefly. His presence in spring training that year so incensed white residents that they accosted the mayor and demanded Robinson's ouster. When the integrated team was physically prevented from taking the field, the Dodgers' owner moved Robinson out of town for his own good. "The Robinsons were run out of Sanford, Florida, with threats of violence," Robinson's daughter would later say.

That could all be chalked up to ancient history if it weren't for the numerous more recent instances of racism in the town.

None of this is to say that it hasn't gotten better. But it's also not hard to understand why 30,000 people came out in protest last week in the Trayvon case, many of them African American. Considering this history, the people of that area --- of this country --- have a right and an obligation to protest.