History, they say, is written by the victors, and in his new book author T. D. Allman sets out to resurrect some forgotten heroes while poking holes in much of the state’s accepted history as written by some of the white supremacists and tourist trap operators. The book is interesting and infuriating, sometimes shrill and tedious. Some of the myths of Florida’s accepted history clearly bother Allman so much that he can’t help but repeatedly look back to his version.
Many of the myths are well-known: Ponce de Leon wasn’t looking for a fountain of youth and certainly never found one. Julia Tuttle didn’t persuade Henry Flagler to extend his railroad to Miami by sending him an orange blossom after a freeze. Other myths, including much of the Civil War history of the state, are still popularly accepted as fact.
In Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State, Allman’s excavation of those myths and his uncovering of some true Civil War history is intriguing and deserves more attention. Florida’s Civil War “heroes” were not the genteel Southern gentlemen painted by the neo-Confederates who erected monuments and wrote history. Even their supposed valor in battles is a glossed-over account that denies the rightful role of some of the true heroes during that period.
Allman, also author of Miami: City of the Future, devotes a lot of space to the 1816 massacre at Negro Fort, which he argues was a seminal event in the state’s history.
“Understand what happened at Negro Fort, and myriad future events become intelligible,” he writes. “Banish it from mind and memory, and two hundred years of conflict and pain become disconnected, impossible to understand.”
Allman goes back to the contemporaneous reports of the massacre there and shows that at the time the U.S. forces that bombed the fort on the banks of the Apalachicola River readily acknowledged they had killed many women and children, along with the black and Native American men. And though Gen. Andrew Jackson regularly referred to them as escaped American slaves, the contemporary reports note that the blacks there were Spanish speakers and thus were free Spanish citizens. Later histories would claim that the leaders there, one a black man and one a Native American, were sentenced to death because four American sailors “searching for water” were killed in earlier fighting.
“Not even those who killed them ever pretended there was a judicial process,” Allman notes. Instead, the contemporary accounts describe torture but no trial.
Sometimes, however, Allman’s liberal sensibilities are overwhelmed by Florida’s complexity. His portrayal of Miami’s Cuban population during the Elian scandal veers from cartoonish to offensive.
“The prospect of Elian being returned to Cuba profoundly offended the Miami Cuban sense of entitlement,” he writes. “The notion that America owed them whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it, in return for not having rid them of Castro, had been transgressed. At Save Elian rallies Cuban-Americans who owned two houses and four cars recalled the trauma of having to sleep in a garage on a mattress for a few weeks. People who had multimillion-dollar art collections proclaimed they, too, were but orphans of the storm.”
Meanwhile, he canonizes Sen. Claude Pepper as a true Southerner and right-thinking liberal who rose above the racism of his time, only to be defeated by a race-baiting carpetbagger from New Jersey. Allman fails to mention that Pepper joined his southern colleagues in the Senate in a filibuster that successfully blocked a bill to outlaw lynching in 1938. By some accounts, Florida led the nation in lynchings at that point.
Sometimes Allman’s assertions are simply hard to reconcile with reality, as when he described the manned space program as “failing to fulfill any scientific purpose.” Any? At all?
His description of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings just seems silly. He’s offended that Rawling’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling doesn’t include stories of black Floridians and doesn’t mention the fact that poor whites in Florida were “denied land, opportunity and education because Florida’s political and financial oligarchs grabbed everything for themselves.”
In Allman’s telling, Rawlings’ fortunes take a turn for the worse, and she has to resort to “taking in boarders.” Allman’s suggestion that Rawlings was reduced to changing sheets “with her literary endeavors failing” is itself a glossed-over account that denies reality. Rawlings’ husband was a wealthy hotelier, and though The Yearling was her most successful work, her 1942 nonfiction book Cross Creek was a Book of the Month Club selection, and she was far from destitute or forced to take in boarders.
Allman makes a powerful argument for revisiting Florida’s past, unpeeling the layers of myth wrapped up in biases and prejudice that have been written into the history books. Yet his own political prejudices tend to blur his focus.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.