The Governor, the Swamp, and “Fake News”: Napoleon Bonaparte Broward’s Battle to Drain the Everglades and His War on the Press

Photograph of Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward from UFDC

Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.

American politicians have always had a love-hate relationship with the press. The current presidential row with the media, while extreme, has plenty of historical antecedents. Thomas Jefferson, a resolute defender of a free press, was not so complimentary to newspapers of his day when he was president. Dismayed by attacks on his administration, he lamented, ‘”Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”” Florida history also has many examples of conflict between chief executives and the media. John Milton, governor during the Civil War, accused unfavorable newspapers of treason and recommended to the legislature that “no Yankee of doubtful character be permitted to edit a public journal at the South. An editor can insidiously influence the minds of thoughtless men against the good of the country.” A much more publicized example of a clash between a Florida governor and the media came forty-six years after Milton’s newspaper flap when Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, angry over opposition to his plan to drain the Everglades, called for censorship of the state’s press.

One of the most colorful characters to sit in the governor’s chair, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward—his name proclaimed ambition and action—fought to transform Florida by draining and reclaiming the vast wetlands of the Everglades for agricultural and homestead development. Like his contemporary Teddy Roosevelt, Broward was a supremely energetic and charismatic leader—both were strong, sturdy men with large mustaches—who thought big. Roosevelt had his Panama Canal while Broward dreamed of dredging “the Swamp” to transform Florida’s economy. They also had large families: Roosevelt had six children and Broward had nine kids.

Born outside of Jacksonville on April 19, 1857, Broward, like Teddy Roosevelt, led an adventurous early life. Broward was a sailor, steamboat captain, and lawman, serving for several years as the sheriff of Duval County. His exploits in that position made him a leading figure in Duval Democratic politics, where he was a leader of the progressive or “Straightout” faction of Democrats who opposed the influence of corporations, especially railroads, in Florida politics. Broward became a statewide and even nationally recognized name in 1896, when he captained a large tugboat named the Three Friends on gunrunning or filibustering voyages to Cuba in support of the revolution against Spain. Press accounts of his Cuban exploits made him a popular if exasperating figure—in 1896 the United States was trying to remain neutral in the Cuban conflict that eventually led to the Spanish American War—who ended his gun running days as a hero to many. Capitalizing on his popularity, Broward was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1900 and won the governorship in 1904.

Filibusters Siezed
The Ocala evening star-June 30, 1896

Broward waged a populist campaign, lambasting the powerful railroads and special interests. His most dramatic message by far, however, was his promise to pursue the drainage and reclamation of the Everglades as a way of transforming South Florida, which had far less population and political clout in those days, and Florida’s economy. Broward even carried a state map to campaign rallies so he could point out to the crowds the boundaries of his proposed drainage district. During his inauguration on January 3, 1905, he reiterated his campaign stand on the Everglades, promising to “convert what is now unsurveyed waste land into a state asset more valuable than all the lands now under cultivation within her borders.”

Broward Inaugural Address
The Pensacola journal-January 4, 1905

After touring the Everglades in February to gather facts and figures for his upcoming address to the legislature on drainage, he delivered his message on the topic on May 3, 1905. The governor detailed the political, legal, and engineering history of past efforts to reclaim the Everglades for development. He argued that railroads and canal companies opposed the drainage plan on land that the state had granted to them in previous administrations: the vast extent of the Everglades was mostly “swamp and overflowed” lands that the federal government had granted to Florida since the 1850s. The state, in turn, granted land to railroads and other companies for transportation improvements, but the companies controlled vast amounts of undeveloped Everglades land that they refused to turn back over to the state for Broward’s drainage effort. Broward insisted that the public good and past court cases allowed the state to drain those lands. He proposed establishing a massive drainage district across much of South Florida to raise revenue to pay for the drainage project, which would be placed into law through a state constitutional amendment.

Governor Broward devoted most of his time during the rest of his term to establishing the drainage district and began dredging the Everglades. He campaigned hard to get the public to pass the drainage amendment. Although there was public and political support for his drainage plan, as the months went by, opposition to the project gained strength as critics challenged the cost and questioned the feasibility of the undertaking. Broward debated the merits of his plan with opponents and spoke across the state to win over the public; however, voters turned down the constitutional amendment in November 1906. The Governor was still able to pursue drainage through legislative bills, but he was disappointed and angry that his project had not been made “permanent” through constitutional amendment. For this failure, he did not blame the public, but pointed to his old corporate enemies and the newspapers they influenced—he would have said controlled—as the real culprits responsible for railroading his amendment.

Broward-Beard Debate
The Pensacola journal-August 21, 1906

As a result, during the 1907 session of the state legislature, Broward delivered an attack on those newspapers that he believed had used false and slanderous stories to convince voters not to support the drainage amendment. In what he called “The Right of the Public to Correct Information,” the governor pointed to Jacksonville’s Florida-Times Union and a handful of other newspapers as the puppets of the railroads and the main publications responsible for spreading false information about his drainage project. He described newspaper cartoons ridiculing him and his drainage plan as uncalled for, untruthful, and malicious: one cartoon depicted a bloated, gun-toting Broward taking the public school fund from a little girl in order to pay for his depleted “Drainage Scheme.”  Unamused, Governor Broward called for legislation to combat this scourge of “fake news” though appropriate punishments for newspapers, owners, editors, and reporters who intentionally published false information. He appealed to “that great jury, the people,” as the only opinion that mattered, and who should not be allowed to be misinformed and deceived by false information presented as fact.

The Florida times-union-October 4, 1906

The press, of course, was not enthusiastic about Broward’s call for censorship. Newspapers across the state denounced his message as unconstitutional and even deranged. The Tallahassee Weekly True Democrat compared the governor’s stance to that of a schoolyard bully, “overgrown and loudmouthed.” While the Tampa Tribune (quoted in the True Democrat) called his message on newspapers “full of the evil intolerance and despotic utterances of a czar.” The paper went on to question the governor’s sanity: “That any sane man with the liberal and democratic environment of the twentieth century should be capable of a deliberate attack upon the freedom of the press is, we confess, quite beyond our powers to understand . . . Is it possible that the Governor allows a petty vindictiveness to control him?” The massive reaction against his censorship proposal encouraged the legislature not to pass any of Broward’s recommendations on punishing the press. Governor Broward continued to push his drainage plan for the rest of his term. After leaving office, he ran for the Unites States Senate in 1910, winning the primary but dying of illness brought on by exhaustion before he could take office. As the Ocala Evening Star observed, “A Mighty Man Has Fallen.” Successor administrations built on Broward’s drainage efforts, oblivious, until too late, to the tremendous environmental damage that development caused. Broward’s battle to “drain the Swamp” had long-lasting negative and unforeseen consequences.

Citations and Additional Sources

Jefferson quoted in Ryan Mattimore, “Presidential Feuds With the Media Are Nothing New,” History, January 26, 2018 (accessed on June 22, 2018, at

John Milton quote in “Special Message of the Governor,” December 5, 1861, Florida House Journal, 1861, p. 183 (accessed on June 22, 2018, at$vid=House:all).

On Broward’s life, including his relationship with Teddy Roosevelt, see Samuel Proctor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward: Florida’s Fighting Democrat (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1950).

Broward’s message on newspapers is in “The Right of the Public to Correct Information,” in “Message of the Governor, April 2, 1907, Appendix, Florida House Journal, 1907, 64‒70 (accessed on June 22, 2018, at$vid=House:all).

The cartoon, map image, and photos of Broward are located in the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Papers in the University of Florida Smathers Libraries Special and Area Studies Collections ( Digital copies of these items and much more from his papers are in the University of Florida’s Digital Collections under The Floridians.

For a popular history of the Everglades see Michael Grunwald, The Swamp (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).


Revisiting Past Hurricanes in Puerto Rico

Smitten Puerto Rico: Havoc Wrought by Cyclone and Flood in our New Possession, Harper & Brothers, New York, History Miami, 1899

In the midst of hurricane season, one can easily become overwhelmed with worry and anxiety thinking about the catastrophic effects of tropical storms. Media and news outlets during these times try to keep the public on alert and express what kind of preventative measures people should take in order to avoid any major harms or damages. It seems that it was only recently that we escaped our past hurricane season of 2017, keeping in mind the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria, the first category 5 hurricane to hit the entire island in 85 years, falls into a long list of devastating hurricanes within Puerto Rican history, with some of them documented as early as the 16th century. With the relevance of Hurricane Maria and its coverage in media outlets one may wonder how hurricanes were discussed in historical newspapers. Puerto Rican newspapers, such as La Gazeta (1806-1902), La Democracia (1890-1948) and La Correspondencia (1890-1943) provide interesting insights on the past major storms that affected the island ; including the ways in which they were discussed and regarded by the Puerto Rican press.

Take for example a decree posted in a November issue of La Gazeta that recalls a hurricane that made landfall on the island on October 29, 1867. The decree exclaims that in the capital of San Juan, Puerto Rican officials, including Sr. Don José María Marchesi, met at La Fortaleza to discuss the conflicts surrounding hurricane damages and relief efforts.  The hurricane mentioned in this decree is in fact hurricane San Narciso, a storm that caused approximately 211 deaths on the island due to flooding and about 13 million escudos (the Spanish currency at the time) in damages. It is important to note that hurricanes and tropical storms were named after saint days during this period.

Snippet from La Gazeta- November 7, 1867

The harmful effects of the hurricane are reflected in the words of the decree with mention of suffering families that “present themselves at the doors of our homes to beg for bread in order to feed themselves”. Agricultural damages are also mentioned, with a short testimony made by a farmer in the town of Manatí proclaiming that his life feels reduced to that of the animals he cares for.

Snippet from La Gazeta- November 7, 1867

The next page of the issue shows a table that the town mayors of Puerto Rico would have filled out in order to calculate all the damages and losses from the storm. The table includes sections for tallying the total number of structural damages, lost products, lost farm animals and, ultimately, deaths.

Table from La Gazeta- November 7, 1867

Hurricane Narciso occurred during a time when Puerto Rico was still under Spanish rule. It wasn’t until 1898, with the results of the Spanish-American War, that Puerto Rico became a United States territory. The following year, Puerto Rico faced another major hurricane, San Ciriaco. San Ciriaco made landfall on August 8, 1899, causing approximately 3,369 deaths and an estimated 35,889,013 dollars in damages. The intense storm and its aftermath were detailed in an issue of La Correspondencia. The “Temporal” part of the issue is divided into sections with the some of the towns of Puerto Rico, including Arecibo, Guayama, Ciales and Yabucoa, describing the storm and local damages. Some of the sections are brief, with simple documentation, while others are much lengthier with graphic testimonies from the island’s citizens, including one from Manuel Cerecedo.

Snippet from La Correspondencia- August 14, 1899

Translation: “I was in a wooden house with deputy Dominguez, two more officers from the island’s police force, and another two men, Diego Melendez, clerk of the establishment “Bonin & Co.” and Carlos Spencer, clerk of “Mayol & Co.”, both located in Ponce. At 8 in the morning the zinc roof of the church had blown away. The island police had already gone out through the town offering any aid they could give in order to fulfill their humanitarian duties. When the hurricane lashed out more aggressively onto the house where we were taking refuge, the one located in front of the church, I told my companions ‘men, to the plaza’ and we immediately ran. The wind elevated us more than ten meters and as we fell unto the plaza, the house fell too. One of the men had sunk with it, but was able to save himself in a basement. The rest of us saved ourselves under some benches. A woman ran with desperation with a small girl in her arms and pleading for help. I went to help the woman and when she handed me the child, a beam flew through and killed her. I was able to save the child under the bench where my other companion was.”

San Ciriaco is the first hurricane Puerto Rico experienced as a United States territory. Thus, as scholar Staurt B. Schwartz points out in his book Sea of Storms, the hurricane tested the political future of the island, since there were still speculations about its sovereignty. The aftermath of the hurricane was quite brutal as the economy suffered from the loss of crops, especially coffee, and with a large number of the island’s population left homeless.

The Military Governor of Puerto Rico during that time did issue a remission of taxes on the island, but the United States did not establish official funds for hurricane relief. As a result, a charity program was manifested in the United States, an act that Schwartz interprets as a political move to demonstrate the nation’s efficiency towards Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, the charity funds were given to plantation owners, rather than to the victims and those left destitute by the storm.

Some newspaper sections seem to praise the United States for their aid, such as one found in La Correspondencia.

Snippet from La Correspondencia- August 28, 1899

Translation: “The campaigns held in a majority of the American press in favor of Puerto Rico is truly beautiful. All of them want and ask with insistence and bravery that the whole nation come together and offer help and aid to the territory of Puerto Rico, devastated by the horrendous hurricane that took place on August 8th. Despite the exclusive fame and the materialism enjoyed by the American people, it is true that their humanitarian and charitable sentiments have fervent admirers here. “

Other writers, however, are far more critical. In an issue of La Democracia, under the section of “Ante el Problema” the writer urges the reader to not completely despair, but at the same time to not be fooled by false illusions. Instead, the writer wants the reader to find a balance between the two poles in the midst of San Ciriaco’s devastating aftermath. The writer explains that with the island’s current state of ruin, if its “new metropolis” doesn’t do anything to help, the island would “perish without remedy”. Additionally, the writer brings to light that millions are needed to rebuild the several farms that are essential to Puerto Rico’s economy in producing coffee, sugar and other crops, and that relief funds should go directly to the poor.

Snippet from La Democracia- August 25, 1899
Snippet from La Democracia- August 25, 1899

Other articles are more politicized, as one from La Democracia demonstrates.  The writer, in this case, tells audiences to worry more about the “social cyclone”, meaning the state in which the island finds itself as a United States territory and with the “tree of autonomy” blown away, rather than the “physical cyclone”.

Snippet from La Democracia- August 19, 1903
Snippet from La Democracia- August 19, 1903

In all, these newspaper examples show parts of Puerto Rico’s long history of dealing with tropical storms and hurricanes. While some cases are unique, others seem quite relevant to the present, giving the impression that history repeats itself or situations never seem to change. With this new hurricane season, one can only hope for the best and safety for all.


**Versíon en español se encuentra aquí: Revisitando huracanes del pasado en Puerto Rico**



Salivia, Luis A. (Luis Alfredo). 1972. Historia de los temporales de puerto rico y las antillas, 1492 a 1970. [2. ed. rev. y aumentada. ed. San Juan, P. R: Editorial Edil.

Schwartz, Stuart B. Puerto Rico’s hurricane maría proves once again that natural disasters are never natural. in History Newsnetwork, Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, George Washington University [database online]. 2018 [cited May 15 2018]. Available from

———. 2015. Sea of storms : A history of hurricanes in the greater caribbean from columbus to katrina. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

New Blog Contributor: Katiana Bagué

We’re happy to announce that we have a new contributor to our blog. Katiana is going to focus on blogs related to our Puerto Rico content, which we plan to release periodically. Without further ado, we’ll let Katiana introduce herself!


My name is Katiana Bagué and I am a Puerto Rican-American, currently in Florida.  I recently attained my B.A in Art History from University of Florida in May 2018. I have been working at the George A. Smathers Latin American and Caribbean Collection (LACC) since June 2016, and as of October 2017, I was awarded the ARL Fellowship for Digital and Inclusive Excellence. Through the fellowship, I have been able to develop online exhibits for LACC. I was fortunate enough to help transform the physical exhibit of The Cuban American Dream into an online timeline, and curate The Expression and Legacy of Landownership in Mexico. I am excited to be a part of this project and share some guest posts related to topics found in historical Puerto Rican newspapers. I’m new to twitter, but my handle is @katiana_mb.

Memorial Days in early 20th Century Florida

n033535 Florida Memory
G.A.R. reunion on Decoration Day, May 30, 1912 – Kissimmee, Florida-From Florida Memory

Memorial Day means different things to different people. For many, it is the unofficial start to the summer season filled with grilling and celebration. For others, it is a day to solemnly reflect on the sacrifices made by those fighting in the Armed Forces. The holiday, which emerged during the Civil War, reflects the needs, beliefs, and politics of those organizing publicly advertised celebrations. As we’ll explore in this post, in the early 20th century different groups organized Memorial Day celebrations around Florida and, due to American participation in World War I, by the beginning of the 1920s more groups than ever before were organizing Memorial Day celebrations. In America’s Public Holidays 1865-1920, historian Ellen M. Litwicki makes the point that “the best window on public holidays in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the popular press. Because journalists generally supported the goals of such events, they promoted holiday rituals heavily in their pages, editorialized on the significance of commemorations, and published extensive descriptive accounts of the rituals and oratory” (Litwicki 5). It is no surprise then that our historic papers serve as an excellent chronicle of the attitudes and actors involved in Florida’s Memorial Day celebrations.

Memorial Day has Deeper Significance
The Pensacola journal-May 30, 1918

While the exact origin of Memorial Day is contested by historians, various cities and groups who benefit from claiming to be the originators of this Federal Holiday keep the debate in the public eye. However, there is consensus according to Litwicki that, “the idea of a holiday specifically to mourn the dead was a product of the nineteenth-century convergence of sentimental, evangelical, and romantic attitudes toward death, mourning, and the hereafter, which coalesced in the rural cemetery movement of the 1830s” (Litwicki 11). This cultural acceptance of collective public mourning is likely why the holiday, with region variations, became a nation-wide celebration by the end of the 19th century. But just because Memorial Day was celebrated in both the North and the South doesn’t mean different groups were celebrating the same ideas.

In Southern states, including Florida, Memorial Day was celebrated on April 26th which coincides with the “the anniversary of General Joseph Johnston’s surrender” at the end of the Civil War (Litwicki 13). In the North, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th and was interchangeably referred to as Decoration Day although, according Litwicki The Grand Army of the Republic “ campaigned against the use of the new name as insufficiently descriptive of the day’s purpose, declaring in an 1882 resolution that the proper name of the day was Memorial Day” (Litwicki 26-27). In our papers, searches for both “Decoration Day” and “Memorial Day” will result in many stories. It is common to see references to celebrations organized by the Daughters of the Confederacy in April, while celebrations in May were typically organized by the Grand Army of the Republic, although sometimes Confederate groups would organize additional celebrations. In the early 20th century, both groups would often open their celebrations to include veterans of the Spanish American War while still maintaining the two distinct holidays. The important point is that celebrations of Memorial Days were not uniformly celebrated in Florida. Some cities, like Pensacola, held both Confederate and GAR memorial celebrations. While others, like Daytona, had populations that largely celebrated one holiday or another. For example, in 1917 The Daytona daily news remarked that while banks were closed for “Confederate memorial day” on April 26th “no other observation of the day is made here as this city is largely composed of people from the northern states and the few Confederate soldiers and southern people residing here have accepted the northern Decoration day, May 30th, which is more generally observed in this city and vicinity.” Confederate celebrations generally remembered the Lost Cause, while GAR celebrations generally heralded the triumph of the Union and 50 years after the war the distinction remained divisive.

Daytona Memorial Day
The Daytona daily news-April 26, 1917

United States participation in World War I seems to have shifted the focus of Memorial Day from only past sacrifices, be they Confederate or Union, to include the contemporary actions of Americans engaged in combat in Europe. May 30, 1918 was “designated by President Wilson as a day of prayer for the success of the nation in the great war.” Interestingly, The Ocala evening star uses their article as an opportunity to link past struggles with those of the present stating “it is easy to imagine the men of the mighty armies of the blue and gray watching from the spirit world the battle that their sons and grandsons in khaki are waging for their native land and all humanity.” This local perspective is different than that of the Associated Press article which appears on the front page of The Pensacola journal. This more national and present-focused piece boldly proclaims Memorial Day 1918 has “taken on a deeper significance. The day is consecrated anew to the thousands who recently have given their lives in perhaps the noblest cause for which America ever has fought” while also containing the text of President Wilson’s proclamation.


The more present-focused Memorial Day celebrations were not without controversy. During and after World War I, some groups, including The Ocala evening star and Tampa Times in Florida, began to suggest that a “common memorial day for North and South” would be preferable to continuing the dual holiday structure. Many Confederate groups rejected such proposals. The Lakeland Camp of the United Confederate Veterans, for instance, stated that they opposed the idea because they felt “to agree to the aforesaid merger would be a fire-brand instead of an olive branch.” The reason for thinking reconciliation would be a “fire brand” largely has to do with the fear that universal ceremonies would stifle the recognition that Confederate cause had been valid and noble if dictated by the Federal government.

Ocala Front Page
The Ocala evening star-May 28, 1921

By the end of World War I, another major actor emerged in discussions of how to frame Memorial Day celebrations. The American Legion, formed in 1919, was an organization dedicated to the memory of those who served in the war. Historian Lisa M. Budreau discusses the Legion in her book Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America 1919-1933. She claims that “even the organization’s moniker was a reminder of what its members represented, and it reflected their insistence that the war should not be forgotten. To risk the loss of memory would have threatened the very core of the Legion’s raison d’etre, the myth of the fallen solider and the glories of America’s victories” (Budreau 142). And as Civil War veterans aged, the Legion, according to historian Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, “replaced the Grand Army of the Republic as the nation’s military conscience, spearheaded the drive to promote a conservative political ethos and enforce ‘100 percent Americanism’” (O’Leary 243-244). American Legion efforts to engage in memory projects related to Memorial Day after WWI, involved raising money to decorate American graves overseas, raising money for grave markers, and encouraging people to wear the poppy to remember the war.

Poppy Lady American Legion
The Pensacola journal-April 25, 1921

While Memorial Day is dedicated to the memories of those who have fought and died for the United States, many groups have tried to shape the tone and meaning of those celebrations. We encourage people do dive into our papers and read more about Memorial Day and Decoration Day, paying close attention to the different actors who are and aren’t present in the news.

Citations and Additional Sources

Budreau, Lisa M. Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in American Life 1919-1933. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Litwicki, Ellen M. America’s Public Holidays 1865-1920. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institutional Press, 2000.

O’Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Penack, William. For God and Country: The American Legion, 1919-1941. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Historic April Fools’ Pranks

Practical jokes? Hoaxes? General trickery? All these things are associated with April 1st, also known as April Fools’ Day. While scholars can’t seem to agree on the origin of the holiday, we do know that it has made fools of many for centuries. Early 20th century Floridians enjoyed the holiday, and, consequently, our papers have many stories about assorted shenanigans. We’ve included a selection of holiday related content below. And just remember, if it sounds too good to be true on April 1st, it probably is.

Ocala Evening Star April Fools Masthead
The Ocala Evening Star- April 1, 1921

Masthead reminder for the forgetful.

April Fools traced to drudical times
The Ocala Evening Star-July 25, 1922

Speculation as to the origin of the holiday.

Electric gold piece
The Palatka daily news-April 4, 1885

People apparently weren’t expecting such a shocking prank in 1885.


Liberty Bell Stolen Hoax
The Palatka daily news-April 3, 1885

Reports that the Liberty Bell was stolen while in New Orleans turned out to be an April Fools prank concocted by some journalists covering the World’s Industrial and Cotton Exhibition.

Lakeland airship prank
The Lakeland evening telegram-April 1, 1920

The Lakeland evening telegram wrote about a non-existent airship flying over the city in the hopes of making everyone go outside to search for it.

Says She Sent Poisoned Candy
The Pensacola journal-April 5, 1916

Sending poisoned candy seems a little beyond just a harmless prank…


We'll never fool you ad
The Lakeland evening telegram-March 31, 1913
Tire Ad
The Pensacola journal-April 1, 1920

Some companies used April Fool’s to advertise their goods as anything but a joke.

African American Newspaper Editors in Early 20th Century Florida

Photograph of M.M. Lewey and other staff of the Florida Sentinel. From The New York Public Library Digital Collections

As you may have guessed, the people running this blog really enjoy Florida history. We love finding new topics to write about by not only exploring our papers but also the books and articles historians have written about the state. Occasionally, we learn about an event or person we think will allow us to write a great post only to find out that our papers don’t discuss the matter at all! One such topic that is largely absent from our papers is the existences of and opinions in the African American press in Florida in the early 20th century.

Journalism professor Patrick S. Washburn describes the role of the black press in America as “operating against a background of continual inequalities for blacks and a white America that routinely, and sometimes fiercely and even illogically, fought the granting of any new rights, black newspapers came to be in the vanguard of the struggle.” He also argues that the black press was necessary because of the racial bias in white papers. Simply put, “white newspapers virtually refused to cover blacks unless they were athletic stars, entertainers, or criminals, blacks were forced to read their own papers to learn about everyday black life in communities across the country” (Washburn 5-6). Because the African American press was so intentionally focused on black news and concerns, it may not be surprising that the white-run Florida papers we’ve digitized, which do refer to each other frequently, by and large don’t address the existence of the black press.  However, we will point out that some papers had regularly occurring columns or pages that made space for African American news, but, in our collection of papers, this example seems to be the exception and not the rule. Some of the more outspokenly segregationist papers in Florida at this time opposed the inclusion of such columns with the argument that it involves “pushing the negro forward to a place where he does not belong.”

Gainsville Lewey Praise
The Gainesville daily sun-March 9, 1908

Despite the infrequent mention of the African American press, there is a pleasantly surprising amount of positive coverage of Editor Matthew M. Lewey (stylized as M. M. Lewey) and the Florida Sentinel. The paper served a variety of cites during its publication period. It was published in Gainesville from 1887-1894, Pensacola from 1894-1914, and Jacksonville from 1914-1931. Lewey was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1848 and, prior to moving to Florida, he served in the Civil War for the Union. He eventually became involved in politics and served as both a Justice of the Peace for Alachua County and a member of the Florida House of Representatives prior to starting the Florida Sentinel.

During Lewey’s time in Pensacola, The Pensacola journal regularly discussed his involvement with groups like the Negro Business League and Republican Party. Lewey also supported education for African Americans, even appearing and traveling with Booker T. Washington when he visited Florida in 1912. The white press was generally complimentary of his work with both The Chipley banner and the Gainesville daily sun complementing his work. The Pensacola journal seemed to praise the Christmas edition of the Florida Sentinel almost annually as well as their annual special edition published in the summer. The Pensacola journal’s praise for the 1912 special edition highlights the “graphic account of the recent tour of Dr. Booker t. Washington through Florida” calling the paper “a very fine effort” while also denoting that it is “a negro newspaper.”

Republicans hold meeting
The Pensacola journal-January 27, 1912

Despite the considerable praise The Pensacola journal heaped on M.M. Lewey, their coverage of his activities eventually and abruptly ceased. We know that he moved the paper to Jacksonville in 1914, but to our knowledge there is no mention of it occurring in our newspapers. However, in the year prior to the move, his name does begin to appear in the legal notice section of the paper. In one announcement, the manager of Ferris Warehouse and Storage Co. was to “sell to the highest bidder for cash, one lot of household furniture, property of M. M. Lewey, stored in our warehouse upon which no charges have ever been paid.” And on September 23, 1913 there is a story about the City Tax Collector seizing his property to cover taxes he owed. This is the last story about Lewey in The Pensacola journal and it stands in stark contrast to the tone of the other articles in which he is discussed.

Washington Lakeland Lewey
The Lakeland evening telegram-March 2, 1912

If you are interested in learning more about African American run historic newspapers in Florida, we do have some suggestions for further readings. If you’d like a list of black newspapers, the Florida Journalism History Project includes as list historic and contemporary African American newspapers in the state. Additionally, Julian C. Chambliss, a history professor at Rollins College, has worked to digitize surviving portions of The Winter Park Advocate which began publication in 1889. Archives are created and maintained by humans and are very much reflective of their time. Both consequently and unfortunately, archivists in the early to mid-20th century often did not include African American papers in their collections. Because of this, the voices of many African American papers in Florida have not survived and, unless copies of papers are discovered and preserved, may be lost forever.

Citations and Additional Sources:

Brown, Canter. Florida’s Black Public Officials, 1867-1924. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Pride, Armistead S. and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black Press. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

Washburn, Patrick S. The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom. Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 2006.

Historical Holiday Cheer- The St. Nicholas Girl

Xmas scene at home of poor
The Pensacola journal-December 15, 1922

Most people are familiar with Santa Claus, but do you know about his chipper young helper the St. Nicholas Girl? Anyone searching for Christmas content in Florida Chronicling America newspapers is sure to come across stories about the figure, or occasionally figures, who worked tirelessly leading up to Christmas to collect donations in order to provide poor children toys for Christmas. In this post we’ll provide a little more background information about the festive holiday woman.

Unlike many holiday traditions, we know the origin of the St. Nicholas Girl. She was the brainchild of Selene Armstrong, a journalist, who worked for The Washington Times in Washington D.C. In 1909, she published a front page article for the paper about Santa Claus’s visit to the newspaper office to accept the St. Nicholas Girl’s “aid in distributing presents.”[1] In an interview Santa Claus granted to the Times, he requests that “every man, woman, and child who has a toy, a flower, a bright silver quarter or dollar, or anything else that will make happy the heart of a child, to send it to the St. Nicholas Girl at the Washington Times office” for distribution to “homes, hospitals, and asylums” on Christmas Eve. Armstrong developed the reputation “all over the United States as ‘The Christmas Lady’” according to The Pensacola journal, and other cities were inspired to incorporate the St. Nicholas Girl into their local holiday celebrations.

Saint Nicholas Girls Christmas Tree
The Pensacola journal-December 3, 1916

Newspapers served as an excellent tool to endorse the activities of the St. Nicholas Girl and encourage the general public to support her holiday work. The Lakeland evening telegram promoted their version of the event in 1911, but that appears to be the only year they collected gifts in this manner. Historian Kevin M. McCarthy mentions that The Florida Times-Union supported the work of the St. Nicholas Girl in Jacksonville in 1912, saying “she encouraged the children to ask for what they really wanted, not so much what they needed” (49).  However, McCarthy doesn’t mention if Jacksonville continued to call on the St. Nicholas Girl in the years to follow. One thing we know for certain having spent time reading about this tradition in Chronicling America is that the city of Pensacola enthusiastically embraced the St. Nicholas Girl from 1913 through at least 1922.

Will Need $500 for Presents
The Pensacola journal-December 10, 1921

The St. Nicholas Girl is introduced on the society page of The Pensacola journal on November 13, 1913 with a narrative article from the point of view of a mother forced to answer the difficult question: “Does old Sandy Claus fill all the little children’s stockings?” Worried that her affirmative answer wasn’t quite truthful, the woman is reported to have gone to the newspaper office to ask them to enlist the help of the St. Nicholas Girl to provide gifts to all children in Pensacola. The next day, the society page reports the arrival of the St. Nicholas Girl “from toyland.” The article announces her intentions and in it she encourages all children, regardless of economic status, to write letters to Santa and send them to the newspaper so they won’t be missed.[2] For the rest of the 1913 holiday season, The Pensacola journal promoted their Christmas Doll and Toy Fund, touting the support and involvement of the St. Nicholas Girl.  Regular updates on fundraising and the gathering of toys were printed in the society section. After handing out the gifts collected through this initiative on Christmas Day, the paper declared the event a success and expressed desire to continue it in the future.

In the years that followed, multiple women served as the St. Nicholas Girl, and, at times, it even became a group effort. Through the end of our digitized run of The Pensacola journal, the work of the St. Nicholas Girl and reports of her benevolent deeds are a prominent features in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Group Shot St. Nicholas Girls
The Pensacola journal-December 26, 1918

Footnotes: [1] While she is usually credited in our papers as Selene Armstrong, she also went by Selene Ayer Armstrong prior to marriage and either Selene Armstrong Harmon or Mrs. Dudley Harmon after marriage.

[2] It is difficult to tell, however, if the St. Nicholas Girl truly brought toys to all children. Given the fact that The Pensacola journal was a white newspaper in the South during Jim Crow, it typically made note when both African American and white people participated in something. Since the stories about the St. Nicholas Girl don’t bring up race, we believe it is worth mentioning that this may denote that only white children had access to this program.

Citations and Additional Sources:

Kevin M. McCarthy. Christmas in Florida. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, 2000.