In the 15 years following the Civil War, African Americans grew politically and economically. By 1890, white America had become uncomfortable with the situation. Especially the southern states. Whites began eliminating blacks from their successes.
Whites moved against blacks in three areas.
One was disenfranchisement. Between 1890 and 1905, southern states passed laws designed specifically to prevent African Americans from voting.
Jim Crow laws were passed in the same time period. Each southern state passed laws formally segregating public facilities. It was in the 1890’s that the famous “white” and “colored” signs appeared.
The third area was lynching. A campaign of lynching evolved simultaneously. Targeted were African Americans.
The Keys History section in yesterday’s Key West Citizen made note that on yesterday’s date in 1897, the black man Sylvannus Johnson was hung in Key West. Johnson’s story exemplifies how blacks were treated in his time. His hanging not specifically a lynching, was one for all practical purposes.
He was hung on September 24, 1897. Following a purportedly “fair trial.” From a gallows erected specifically for the purpose in Jackson Square between the courthouse and jail.
Johnson had been convicted of raping a white woman.
Was his trial fair? Make up your own mind.
In the 1890’s, Key West was a growing hot bed of anti-black sentiment. Even after Johnson’s execution, the animosity continued growing into the 1920’s.
A Ku Klux Klan was established in Key West in the 1920’s. In opposition and fear to the growing political organizing which was taking place in the black community.
Key West was part and parcel of the Florida Ku Klux Klan. Influential. In the 1920’s, local Key West businessman Charles H. Ketchum was the Grand Dragon for the State of Florida. He ran the Klan during his term in office from his Key West home.
Back to Johnson’s court proceedings.
During his arraignment, the local labor leader C.B. Pendelton, a white, rose and exclaimed: “Are there enough white men in this room who will help me in lynching the brute?”
A group of blacks in the court room rushed to defend Johnson and temporarily foiled Pendleton’s plan.
A Times-Union reporter was present. Apparently anti-black also. He wrote, “Your correspondent would not be surprised to learn in the morning that the brute had met his deserts during the night.”
A group of African Americans surrounded the jail and courthouse to prevent Johnson from being lynched.
The Times-Union reporter wrote, “If a lynching is attempted trouble will follow, as there are not enough whites here at present to protect against the tough negro element that is present making the trouble.”
The Monroe County Sheriff wired Governor Bloxhan for help: “Negroes greatly outraged and threats to beat and kill whites openly made.” White officials believed the affair to be an “insurrection.”
The Governor misunderstood and panicked. He wired President McKinley to send U.S. troops.
The confrontation did not reach that point.
As soon as Key West authorities demonstrated a willingness to guard Johnson, African-Americans withdrew their armed guard.
The blacks had won the day. It ended however with the protection issue. The courtroom was another story. A fair trial could not be and was not ensured.
The all white jury took 1 hour 45 minutes to convict Johnson.
Johnson’s court appointed attorney was not permitted to cross examine witnesses.
Upon the jury’s announcement of his conviction, Johnson rose and exclaimed: “If God was black and came before this jury you would find him guilty. You may hang my black body, but you cannot harm my innocent soul.”
Today Key West is “one human family.” The statement generated for the gay community. It applies to the African American community as well, though perhaps to a lesser degree.
The concern today is not Key West and its black population. Rather it is what is occurring nationally. The vermin came out of the woodwork with Trump’s election. Demonstrators/insurrectionists include the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and White Nationalists, among others of similar strain.
The discrimination war continues. Whites recognize people of color are on the threshold of being the majority in this country. A time when people of color will be in control of government.
Whites, especially southern ones, fear the day. They should. What goes around does come around. No question about it. A day of reckoning is coming.
Enjoy your day!