Acknowledging Florida's History of Slavery

The Florida Legislature has officially acknowledged the state's history of slavery and prejudice. Weekend Edition Essayist Diane Roberts is relieved that her native state has owned up to its past.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

In this year's session, the Florida legislature officially expressed profound regret for the state's history of slavery.

WEEKEND EDITION essayist Diane Roberts is relieved that her native state has owned up to its past.

DIANE ROBERTS: Floridians like to pretend our state is not part of the South. Geographically, yes, we happen to hang off the end of Georgia and Alabama. But we're not Georgia, not Alabama, we're Mickey Mouse and Margaritaville, sunshine and sand, not a land haunted by slavery, Jim Crow, the Klan, lynching.

That sad history surely belongs to someone else. But Florida had plantations; Florida had slaves. By 1830, Florida's northern half produced cotton, corn and rice, worked by people brought down from plantations in Virginia or bought in the St. Augustine slave market.

Rich white folks gave their big houses fanciful names remembered from Scotland or taken from poems, Waverly Little Egypt. On the eve of the Civil War, Florida was one of the fastest growing slave states in the South and the third to secede after South Carolina and Mississippi.

After the war Florida government behaved just like their counterparts in Alabama or Louisiana. They set up an apartheid system designed to maintain white supremacy. In the 1940s and 50s the Ku Klux Klan paraded down palm-lined boulevards in Florida's cities.

After the U.S. Supreme Court Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954, Florida's white leaders reaffirmed their commitment to segregation. In 1956, the Reverend C.K. Steele organized a bus boycott in Tallahassee. There were lunch counter sit-ins, demonstrations riots, cross burnings.

And when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Florida cities erupted in grief and rage.

These days most Floridians come from somewhere else. In Jacksonville and Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, visible reminders of our past are few. Maybe a name -the Dixie Highway - or a high school named after Robert E. Lee. We can trace the outlines of old plantation lands, though now they're subdivisions and golf courses. We can see the faces of people whose great-great-grandparents were slaves, people who sometimes still suffer from the old race curse of America.

So it's good that Florida's legislators have finally acknowledged the state's history of slavery and prejudice. It's good that we Floridians, with our short memories, understand where we came from. Florida was, and is, part of the South. As William Faulkner said, the place where the past is never dead. It's not even past.

NEARY: Diane Roberts is a professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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