Ghosts of Elections Past: Remembering the Presidential Election of 1920

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 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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, (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).


Florida Panthers Leap Out of the Past


Panther Florida Memory
Florida Panther at the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science Courtesy of Florida Memory

On March 3rd we celebrate the 117th anniversary of Florida’s statehood. The 27th state to join the Union, Florida in 1845 was largely unsettled by non-Native American groups. From its discovery by Europeans onward, settlers struggled to learn how to survive in a difficult climate filled with potentially troublesome plants and animals. While mentioning Florida wildlife may invoke a variety of images including the alligator and manatee, the state animal is officially the Florida Panther. To celebrate Florida’s birthday, we want to take the time to discuss this state symbol and just a few of its numerous appearances in our historic newspaper collection.

The Florida Panther (also known as the catamount or painter) was selected by school children in the state during the early 1980s to be the state animal. It faced stiff competition during this election, beating out the alligator, Key Deer, and manatee. By the late 20th century, the panther had secured a spot on the Federal endangered species list due to there being only about 20 left in existence. This Federal protection is a far cry from the cultural attitude of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when panthers were routinely sought out and killed by people all over Florida. For example, a 1916 advertisement for Ten Thousand Islands (now a part of the Everglades National Park) by West Coast Transportation Company promoted the region as “the best area for hunting, fishing, and boating” and includes “panther” on the list of animals that can be found (and presumably hunted) in the area.

Thousand Islands hunting area
Punta Gorda Herald-March 16, 1916

The simplest explanation as to why they were the targets of human aggression is because humans feared them and the big cats caused property damage. These large carnivorous mammals routinely grow to be between 75 and 160 pounds and, in the past, had no scruples about entering towns in search of food. In March of 1901 the Ocala Evening Star included a front page story about a Panther who “invaded the streets” of Perry, Florida. The Panther was reported to have attacked two dogs belonging to Mr. W. E. Quarterman, “eating one and badly wounding the other.” This is a rare story because it does not end in the panther’s death, rather, it simply states that the animal “departed, leaving nothing but his tracks and a partly devoured dog.” A panther living in the Pensacola area was not as lucky. In January of 1907 the Pensacola Journal reported that “wild cats in that vicinity were working sad havoc” and had caused W.D. Henderson to lose “25-30” lambs during the present season. This lead the farmer to join forces with Country Treasurer Williams and “the famous colored catamount hunter,” Ransom Dean, to deal with the animals. The paper reports that they were able to successfully kill two and ends by stating that Mr. Henderson “thinks that either the county commissioners or the cattle growers of the county, or both, should provide a bounty for these destructive animals.”

Perry Panther Dog
Ocala Evening Star-March 23, 1909

Panthers in their natural habitat weren’t much safer than those that ventured into land settled by humans. In April 1908 both the Pensacola Journal and Ocala Evening Star reran a story originally from the Tampa Tribune reporting a panther incident near Punta Gorda. It seems that five young men decided to go camping on Captiva Island despite warnings that it was “infested with various wild animals.” While the trip went well at first, that Friday night P.Q.S. Hatch was attacked by a panther while hunting. Two of his companions arrived after Hatch fired a distress signal from his gun, and Gene Whidden, witnessing the confrontation, “killed the panther by shooting it in the head with a rifle.” Hatch emerged from the event “terribly clawed all over” but ultimately survived.

In addition to the fact that they were considered game animals until 1958, panthers are threatened by other aspects of human activity beyond hunting and poaching. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Service reports road kills are the most common human related cause of panther death in the wild. While this has certainly been exacerbated by the growth of Florida interstates, stories of panthers sightings near roads is not a new occurrence. In 1914 the Pensacola Journal re-ran a short story from the DeLand News about a panther who “was getting ready to spring upon” a hog near the road until “the headlight of an automobile” scared the cat into the brush “before they had the chance to shoot.” Interestingly, this article also notes that this particular panther was the first longtime resident Sheriff Smith had seen in many years and that “forty years ago there were many” in the Volusia county area.

Auto Hog Panther
Pensacola Journal-July 26, 1914


Despite the well-chronicled negativity in instances of human-panther interaction in historical newspapers from Florida, some stories have a happier ending. In May of 1899, the Ocala Evening Star includes a quick blurb about Louis Volk, a local man who captured a catamount kitten. This man apparently displayed the living animal in the show window of A. E. Delouest, a local hardware store. While it may be a good idea to question the claim that it “is becoming somewhat domesticated,” this story nonetheless shows a different side to panther human-panther encounter. One thing becomes very clear while reading about panthers in historical Floridian newspapers: humans have a certain fascination with this particular animal. Perhaps that’s what led school children to choose it to represent Florida as the State Animal.

Catamount Kitten
Ocala Evening Star-May 30, 1899

Works Cited and Additional Information

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




The Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project(FPRDNP) is a collaboration between the University of Florida Smathers Libraries and the library at the University of Puerto Rico– Rio Piedras, as part of the state and territory’s involvement in the NDNP.

The National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), a partnership between the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress, is a long-term effort to provide permanent, free access to historic newspapers selected and digitized by NEH-funded awardees in the United States. This program was created to build upon the United States Newspaper Program (USNP), another NEH & Library of Congress sponsored program geared toward locating, cataloging, and preserving microfilm newspapers published in the U.S. from the 18th Century to present. The NDNP extends the usefulness of the USNP’s digitized assets by incorporating newspapers published from 1836-1922 into a national digital newspaper resource, Chronicling America, where the digitized pages are made available. Through this resource over 9 million newspaper pages have been made available thus far.

The University of Florida was one of the original NDNP awardees in 2005 when the program first started. Approximately 100,000 pages of Florida newspapers published between 1900-1910 were digitized and incorporated into Chronicling America. The George A. Smathers Libraries was awarded another NEH grant of $325,000 in 2013 to collaborate with the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras and provide financial support for the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project. As of August 2015, NEH awarded the FLPRDNP another $288,000 to digitize an additional 110,000 pages from both Florida and Puerto Rico. The completed project will provide free, internet-based access to newspapers that are currently available only on aging microfilm. The digitized papers will be available through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America, the University of Florida Libraries’ Florida Digital Newspaper Library, and the Biblioteca Digital Puertorriqueña at the University of Puerto Rico.

Stay tuned for more, right here on our blog!

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