Ghosts of Elections Past: Remembering the Presidential Election of 1920

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Harding/Coolidge Election Poster circa 1920

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 bmurphree@ufl.edu and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.

The 2016 presidential election has triggered an avalanche of vitriol and sheer nastiness that seems destined to make the election one of the most divisive in US history. Few presidential races have garnered more negative press and generated more negative public reaction than the battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The bitterness of 2016 brings to mind the famous elections of 1860 (Lincoln and secession) and 1968 (Nixon and Vietnam) as parallel periods of anxiety and political division among the electorate.

A more subtle but equally instructive example from past presidential races is the election of 1920, when the nation confronted many of the same issues that dominate the current contest: race, terrorism, the role of women in politics, and uncertainty about America’s role in the world. Going into the election, Florida, like the rest of the Deep South, was a Democratic stronghold. The few Florida newspapers available in Chronicling America from 1920 reflect the Southern, white, male and Democratic view of the issues and the candidates.

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Ocala Evening Star November 3, 1920

Unlike Trump and Clinton, whose controversial names are unlikely to disappear any time soon from American political memory, the names Harding and Cox are seldom recalled today. James M. Cox, the Democratic nominee in 1920, long ago entered the pantheon of losing, little-known presidential contenders. Of course, Republican Warren G. Harding won the presidency, but he is remembered more for love affairs than affairs of state. However, it is not the personalities of the candidates that makes the election of 1920 pertinent today, but the issues that permeated the race.

back-to-normalcy
Ocala Evening Star October 20, 1920

Only two years earlier, the nation emerged victorious from World War I. Despite this victory, America was divided about the results of a peace that left millions dead for questionable gain. Americans were ready to turn inward and embrace Harding’s call for a return to “normalcy” in foreign and domestic affairs. That normalcy was also disturbed in 1919 by a wave of strikes and bombings that resulted in the nation’s first Red Scare, a fear that the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia would bring anarchism and communism to America’s shores. The Red Scare encouraged suspicion of foreigners and foreign doctrines that seemed to endanger American security, fueling the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, which would become a powerful and violent presence in the country during the next decade.

klan-oes-1920
Ocala Evening Star July 12, 1920

Fear of the foreign was matched by fear of the familiar. On August 18, 1920, the nation ratified the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote. The election of 1920 became the first presidential election in which all American women of legal age in each of then forty-eight states had the right to vote. Florida had not ratified the Nineteenth Amendment and would not do so until 1969. Many Florida legislators believed that extending the vote to women would only encourage more African Americans to vote (black women could vote for the first time). After the national ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment made Florida’s continued opposition irrelevant, the same segregationists urged white Florida women to register and vote to offset the expected increase in black voting, now that black women had the vote. Florida women could vote and did so on November 2, 1920, the date of the presidential election. The Ocala Evening Star reported the historic moment on Election Day by noting the names of the first seven white women to vote in Marion County and, with less eye for detail, observed, “A majority of the colored voters are women.”

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Ocala Evening Star November 2, 1920

The fact that African Americans showed up at the polls in large numbers—the Ocala Evening Star reported heavy voting on the “colored side” on election morning—was the result of an organized drive, especially among black women, to register African Americans to vote and vote Republican. The goal of this “Florida movement,” according to historian Paul Ortiz, was “a statewide movement aimed at shattering white supremacy” (Ortiz, 172).

Whites reacted with organized opposition to the black vote. Groups of armed whites, led by the newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan, formed to intimidate and prevent blacks from voting across the state. The resilience of the Florida movement did result in successful black voting in a number of cities, but African American voters in many localities were not so fortunate. Central Florida became the scene of the worst racial violence on Election Day when white residents of Orange County attacked African Americans in Ocoee. African Americans in Ocoee resisted the white mob and a bloody battle raged for several hours in the now burning black community. Known as the Ocoee Massacre, the fighting resulted in the deaths of dozens of African Americans and drove hundreds of others from the town.

ocoee-race-riot
Ocala Evening Star November 3, 1920

As Ocoee burned, Americans awoke to a resounding Republican victory on the morning after Election Day. Hoover swept the nation with over sixty percent of the popular vote and 404 electoral votes to Cox’s 127. The election resolved which party would dominate Washington during the 1920s, but many of the election’s most divisive issues remain with the county to this day.

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Ocala Evening Star November 3, 1920

Citations and Additional Sources

Abraham Lincoln, “That a government of the people shall not perish from the earth” Photographic print. c1920 July 30. From: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011645485/ (accessed October 17, 2016).

Johnson, Kenneth R. “Florida Women Get the Vote.” Florida Historical Quarterly 48, no. 3 (January 1970): 299-312.

Ortiz, Paul. Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida From Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

Pietrusza, David. 1920 The Year of Six Presidents (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007).

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