Hurricanes Have Been an Impediment to Racial Justice BeforeRoundup
tags: racism, disasters, hurricanes
Brandon T. Jett is a professor of history at Florida SouthWestern State College and the author of Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South.
On Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian barreled into the southwest Florida coast as the fifth-most powerful hurricane to ever strike the United States. Storm surge reached upward of 12 feet, and the storm dropped nearly 20 inches of rain on the region. As of Oct. 12, officials have recorded 127 deaths. That number is expected to increase over the next few weeks.
Hurricanes and other natural disasters have a history of causing devastation in ways well beyond the structural, physical and emotional destruction that typically comes to mind and that we are seeing in Florida. While the full scope of Hurricane Ian’s ultimate impact is unclear, Florida hurricanes have a history of reinforcing existing inequality and have hurt efforts aimed at racial and social justice.
A lynching in LaBelle, Fla., in 1926, provides just one example. LaBelle sits roughly 30 miles east of Fort Myers and 30 miles west of Lake Okeechobee. In 1926, the town found itself in the throes of a land boom. Property values increased as speculation about new businesses coming to the region spread. It is within this context that the town decided to invest heavily in a highway that would connect the town to both of Florida’s coasts.
To help build the road, an out-of-state contractor hired hundreds of African American workers and brought them to the town of roughly 1,000 White and only a few dozen Black residents. The Black workers were met with frustration and resentment among White locals who were firmly ensconced in the ideology of the Jim Crow South that justified the legal segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans because of their supposed inferiority and threat to White communities.
Soon a Black construction worker named Henry Patterson was accused of trying to assault a White woman named Hattie Crawford. Crawford later admitted the accusation was baseless. Nonetheless, as in many of the 319 lynchings known to have occurred in Florida, a mob formed and brutally lynched Patterson, claiming to protect the community, and White women specifically, from the threat of dangerous Black men.
What stood out in Patterson’s case was the response. Local county prosecutor Herbert Rider, Judge Wesley Richards and other locals decried the lynching and quickly convened a coroner’s inquest to investigate. They subpoenaed more than 100 witnesses and, after a week of interviews, issued arrest warrants for over a dozen White locals who participated in the lynching.
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