Florida Governor Sidney J. Catts: the Polarizing Populist

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Governor Sidney J. Catts courtesy of Florida Memory

Sidney J. Catts served as the 22nd Governor of Florida from 1917 to 1921. While he only held office for one term, this colorful character certainly left his mark on Florida history. Originally a Democrat, he ended up running for governor on the Prohibition Party ticket after a close and contested primary. Beyond calls for prohibition, Catts mobilized rural voters by promoting an explicitly anti-Catholic platform. As we’ll explore today, these two aspects of his campaign were interrelated and reflect the imagined fears of a subset of Floridians during the early 20th century.

Born July 31, 1863 in Pleasant Hill, Alabama, Catts attended various colleges before graduating with a law degree from Cumberland University in Tennessee in 1882. He became both a Southern Baptist and a minister of the faith in 1886 despite having no theological or pastoral training. Known for having a divisive personality, Catts didn’t tend to last very long as pastor of any given church. As historian and Catts biographer Wayne Flynt puts it, “Sydney Catts was a visceral man who lived by the emotion of the moment, and many a temper tantrum would be followed by many a remorseful apology” (Flynt 2). Catts moved his family to DeFuniak Springs, Florida in 1911, where he worked as a pastor and insurance salesman.

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Pensacola journal-June 4, 1916

Catts initially entered the 1916 gubernatorial race as a Democrat. After a close primary, which Catts initially won, multiple recounts resulted in his opponent, William J. Knott, receiving the party nomination. Not deterred by this setback, Catts decided to run as a Prohibition Party candidate, which allowed him to criticize both the Democratic Party and what he perceived to be foreign influence in politics. His campaign took him to rural areas of Florida not usually visited by traditional politicians, and he is remembered for pioneering the use of the automobile to campaign in more remote parts of the state.

It appears the press in Florida had rather mixed opinions on Catts during the 1916 election. Discussing a study of the Florida press, Flynt states “before the June ballot, the press generally had dismissed Catts as a back country buffoon from the panhandle; but after the Supreme Court denied him the nomination, many papers defended him as the real party nominee” (Flynt 81-82). This column from the Palatka News and Advertiser highlights the opinions of several newspapers in the state. While another column from the Punta Gorda Herald reports that some of Catts’ more far-fetched assertions were making headlines in Havana, Cuba. This of course, refers to his belief that the Pope would take over the U.S and move Rome to San Antonio, Florida.

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The Punta Gorda herald-October 12, 1916

The platform that Catts ran on “struck one major theme: the Democratic machine, supported by partisan courts, had stolen the nomination from the people’s choice” (Flynt 77). He linked this position to larger conspiracies about government influence; the most notable being that the Pope in Rome was planning to take over America and would do so by mobilizing American Catholics to rebel against the government. This would be possible, he believed, because nuns and monks in convents and monasteries were stockpiling weapons. Despite there being no proof of such activities, Flynt comments that “Catts’s oratory manifested an almost psychotic anti-Catholicism” and that to “protect himself, he carried two revolvers which he displayed prominently on the podium to quite unruly crowds and awe his followers” (Flynt 80). Although Catholics only made up about 12% of the population of Florida in 1890, Catts was able to capitalize on anti-Catholic sentiment related to fears about immigration that existed in Florida (and the rest of the United States) during most of the late 19th and early 20th century (Gaustad et al. C.17). In that sense, according to historian David Page, Catts “was rather a shrewd observer of the swelling tide of anti-Catholic prejudice” which “he played upon” when “visiting the backwoods regions of Florida” (Page 113). He used the fear of Catholicism and disillusionment with the mainstream Democratic Party to mobilize his supporters. His words must have resonated with the voting populace, because on Election Day he won “thirty-eight counties, while losing only fourteen” (Flynt 90).

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Pensacola journal-January 3, 1917

Catts’ fear of Catholic influence carried over into his tenure as Governor. In his inaugural address, he promised to encourage the passage of a law that would open “all closed institutions to police inspection.” Catts believed that such a law would allow for the more careful monitoring of “convents, parochial schools and other institutions of like nature” in order to neutralize the threat of Catholic take over. The legislature responded positively to the governor’s request, and passed a bill establishing a board to monitor such institutions during the 1917 legislative session. Despite being codified into law, the bill wasn’t enforced and was ultimately repealed in 1935 (Page 116). Catts was also successful in getting the legislature to approve a prohibition amendment, which the people ratified in 1918. While less explicitly anti-Catholic, many Protestants like Catts believed prohibition would curb Catholic immigrant drinking culture and help them more quickly adopt dominate American (Protestant) culture.

While Catts was unabashedly anti-Catholic broadly, he nonetheless maintained relationships with some individual Catholics including his own daughter-in-law (Flynt 15). This inconsistency resulted in many Florida newspapers relishing at opportunities to point out when Catts appointed a Catholic to public office. A one-term governor, the state press largely ignored Catts during the 1920 U.S. Senate race (which he lost). Catts ran for governor of Florida again in both 1924 and 1928, but he wasn’t able to mobilize the same state-wide support he found in 1916. After failing to get his party’s nomination in 1928, Catts, never afraid to oppose his own party, spent considerable effort campaigning against Al Smith, the Democratic (and Catholic) presidential candidate (Flynt 326). Smith lost the election, and shortly thereafter Catts retired to DeFuniak Springs where he died on March 9, 1936.

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The Ocala evening star-July 3, 1917

A polarizing figure, Governor Sidney J. Catts represents the populism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism which flourished in the early 20th century. His novel approach to campaigning allowed him to reach a rural population who rallied behind his call for prohibition. Unquestionably motivated by his Baptist faith, Catts made headlines before, during, and after his tenure as governor.

Citations and Additional Resources

Flynt, Wayne. Cracker Messiah: Governor Sidney J. Catts of Florida. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Graham, Thomas. “The First Developers.” In The History of Florida, ed. Michael Gannon, 276-295. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott, and Phillip L. Barrow. New Historical Atlas of Religion in America 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Josh. “Bone Dry: The Road to Prohibition in Florida.” The Florida Memory Blog. Accessed February 6, 2017. http://www.floridamemory.com/blog/2014/07/16/bone-dry-the-road-to-prohibition-in-florida/.

Page, David P. “Bishop Michael J. Curley and Anti-Catholic Nativism in Florida.” The Florida Historical Quarterly Vol. 45 No. 2 (Oct., 1966): 101-117.

Portrait of Florida’s 22nd Governor Sidney Johnston Catts. Between 1917 and 1921. Accessed February 8, 2017, https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/128339.

Rivers, Eugene Larry. “Florida’s African American Experience: The Twentieth Century and Beyond.” In The History of Florida, ed. Michael Gannon, 444-469. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013.

 

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The Ocoee Massacre-A Tragic Day in Florida History

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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.”

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).