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.


The Ocoee Massacre-A Tragic Day in Florida History

Description of the History of the Ocoee African Methodist Episcopal Church-Image from Florida Memory

In Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, Paul Ortiz concludes “American history has completely erased the martyrs of 1920” (Oritz 229). Who are these martyrs and why were they forgotten? In this post, we’ll explore the aftermath of what is now known as the Ocoee Massacre by viewing responses from white Florida newspapers found in the Chronicling America collection to remind people of the consequences of racism in the not-so-distant past.

November 2, 1920 marked two important cultural moments; the first Presidential election in which (white) women were able to vote nation-wide and the culmination of the “Florida movement” among African Americans in the state. This voter registration movement began “January 19, 1919-Emancipation Day-“ and sought to mobilize thousands of African American voters. They intended to resist the entrenched Democratic Party’s control of the state as well as challenge “the fundamental elements of racial oppression: poverty wages, debt peonage, failing schools, racial violence, and corrupt law enforcement” (Ortiz 172 & 205). In the months and weeks leading up to the election, white Floridians sought to intimidate African Americans by holding Ku Klux Klan rallies and parades. While The Ocala evening star referred to the Klan’s activities as “incendiary foolishness,” The Daytona daily news reported on Election Day that their “demonstration” proved that the Klan “is in touch with local affairs” and lambasted another local paper for their “efforts” to “belittle the organization.”

The Daytona daily news-November 2, 1920

On Election Day, African Americans attempted to vote, but faced “a planned system of fraud” throughout the state (Ortiz 220). In Ocoee, voter suppression combined with the accusation that an African American man named Mose Norman returned to the polls with a gun after not being allowed to vote, culminated in a white riot that tore through Ocoee. This riot resulted in the deaths, including at least one lynching, of an unknown number of African Americans, the destruction of all African American homes and social institutions in Ocoee, and an attempt on the part of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to force the U.S. Congress to hold the state of Florida accountable for voter suppression.

The Daytona daily news-November 3, 1920

On the morning of November 3rd, the stories in both The Ocala evening star and The Daytona daily news frame the stories as the fault of the African American man who wanted to vote. In an article also run in the Times-Union, The Ocala evening star states “fifty carloads of men left Orlando to help preserve order.” The Klan-supporting Daytona paper states that after “two young white men” were shot from the house that Norman found shelter in, a shootout started which then required “the white people to set fire to 18 houses as a manner of protection.”  The next day, The Ocala evening star ran a front page Associated Press article which declared “storing ammunition and attacking the whites does not pay them (African Americans)” and on November 6th it re-ran a piece from the Orlando Reporter-Star which asserted the “doctrine of social equality has no place in the South” and suggests African Americans “Stop loafing, get to work, and keep out of mischief.” These stories all gloss over the fact that “a group of white men chased Norman from the polls” and then decided they should “pay Moses Norman a visit to bring him to his senses” (Ortiz 220-221).

The Ocala evening star-November 3, 1920

In the months that followed, the events at Ocoee were infrequently discussed in our white Florida papers. Sporadic reports discussed the hearings in Washington D.C. requested by the NAACP in response to the massacre. Paul Oritz argues that the event “drove nearly five hundred African Americans out of Ocoee, and the town became Florida’s newest white homeland,” which may explain the lack of coverage of the issue (Ortiz 223). The dearth in coverage in Florida papers after the massacre demonstrates deeply entrenched racial issues, the effects of which can still be felt today, in early 20th century Florida.

The Ocala evening star-December 17, 1920

Citations and Additional Resources

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


Exploring African American History in Florida using Digitized Newspapers

African American History Month, celebrated in the United States during the month of February since 1976, is a time to reflect on the role African Americans play in our nation’s history and culture. Often this takes the form of celebrating the accomplishments of notable individuals, especially those who broke racial barriers. Here at the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper project, we want to take a moment to explore the everyday lives of African Americans living in Ocala and the surrounding area during the early part of the 20th century by calling attention to the paper’s “Colored People’s Department” column.

CFC Header

One of the many newspapers in our digital collection is the Ocala Evening Star. Published from 1895-1943 before joining with the Ocala Banner to form the Ocala Star-Banner, it continues to provide news for Marion County today. Like many white-owned papers during the early 20th century, racial issues are discussed in a manner that will shock and appall most people today. However, from January 28, 1902 to February 24, 1908 the paper regularly dedicated space for local African American news.

Known as the “Colored Folks Column” from 1902 to 1903 and the “Colored People’s Department” from 1904 until it ended, this section of the Ocala Evening Star offers a snapshot of African American life in Marion County. Topics include notices about illness and recovery, advertisements for welcoming stores and restaurants, marriage celebrations, deaths, and the availability of lodging and purchasable property. Of interest to historians and genealogists alike is the plethora of names and details about individuals living in the community as well as the businesses they patronized.

In addition to the above mentioned topics, religion also features prominently in these columns. This is likely due to the fact that its main editor was Rev. J.E.A. Keeler and also included frequent contributions from Rev. John H. Dickerson who served as pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church. In fact, it is rare to find a column that doesn’t include mention of a church service, camp meeting, or building project. Beyond advertising various events occurring at historically Black churches, occasional morality lessons also appear. These include a variety of topics such as admonishing drunkenness and encouragement to contribute to the community. It is in these moments that the editorial voice of the authors shines through.

Ocala Evening Star December 8, 1903

The “Colored People’s Department” column vanishes from the publication quite suddenly. The last column is an editorial piece by Rev. John H. Dickerson critiquing the manner in which Florida primaries were run at the time. Was his piece too contentious for the newspaper? Were there unseen issues between the editors and the authors of this column? Or did the writers suddenly become overburdened with other commitments? Ultimately, we don’t know. But while less remarkable than the events typically discussed during African American History Month, the African American column in the Ocala Evening Star provides insight into the day to day lives of African Americans living in the Jim Crow South.

Religion News Photo
Ocala Evening Star October 4, 1902
Ocala Evening Star January 25, 1908