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Florida's History Of Race-Related Violence


Earlier this year in the run up to the primary election, political analysts explained that Florida really isn't a Southern state anymore and would not vote the same way as Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia. Then the shooting death of Trayvon Martin prompted some to argue that nothing's changed in a part of the state steeped in racial violence. In a way, both statements hold up.

Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson notes that Central Florida is very different today than even 20 years ago, and she also says that the death of Trayvon Martin reminds us of a caste system that shaped this part of the state. Isabel Wilkerson joins us from Atlanta. She's the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Nice to have you today on the TALK OF THE NATION.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Oh, great to be here.

CONAN: Those of us who associate Florida with beaches and theme parks might be surprised by its racial history.

WILKERSON: Yes. It has a very long and fought racial history that goes back in the area where Trayvon Martin was killed, actually, just outside of Orlando and Sanford. In 1920, there was a massacre of African-Americans who were burned out of their homes when two black men tried to vote. This is going very well back in our history.

CONAN: And how does that past shape the present and the future?

WILKERSON: Well, in some way, this has been a biracial area for so long, meaning a binary world of African-Americans and whites who were living in a caste system during much of the 20th century. And with the changes in the demographics of both the country and of that part of the South, you see it becoming an area that has the introduction of Latinos, who, in many parts of the divisionally binary populations, actually are now overtaking the black population. And so this is all part of, in some ways, the growing pains of an area that's in change.

CONAN: Not merely overtaking the black population, almost double the black population.

WILKERSON: Yes. In Seminole County, which is where Sanford is, the population of Hispanics has - of Latinos has gone up to 17 percent, whereas for African-Americans, it's about 10 percent. It's fallen a bit over the last decade.

CONAN: In your book, one of the characters whose story you follow comes from Sanford, Florida, and has to leave.

WILKERSON: That's right. In fact, the very place where Trayvon Martin lost his life was the same town where one of the characters in the book, George Starling - and this is nonfiction, so this is true, this is real people - he actually had a standoff in the groves because he was, at that time, working in the citrus industry, which was primarily African-American pickers at that time, and he was attempting to organize the pickers to press for better wages and better work conditions. And he had a standoff in the groves which led to a plot to have him lynched. And he had to flee for his life in 1945, and he headed to New York.

CONAN: And part of the great migration that you document, yet in recent years, interestingly enough, we have seen a number of African-Americans returning to the places where their parents or grandparents originally left from. Does that include places like Sanford, Florida?

WILKERSON: Absolutely. In fact, much of the growth in the South has been attributed to the multiple parallels, streams of people coming from different places that are now adding to this new mix of people that are now converging into an area that's very - has a long, long history, which I think a lot of people may not be aware of until they get there.

CONAN: And when they do get there - I mean, I assume everybody knows that there is history, but when you hear about the specific incidents, how does that change a town over time?

WILKERSON: Well, the one thing I want to mention is that, you know, a lot of people do have the sense of Florida being a place of condominium - beach condominiums and palm trees, but, in fact, it is truly - especially that part of Florida, north and central part of Florida, have traditionally been as Southern as any other part of the South. In fact, Florida was the third state to secede from the Union in the months leading up to the Civil War. So this is a history that a lot of people who might be new to the state may not even be aware of.

CONAN: Yet as you also note, a great deal has changed.

WILKERSON: A great deal has changed. I mean, the, you know, the laws that kept the caste system in place for so long are no longer in place. However, some of those same assumptions and stereotypes still persist to this day and a lot of the data are showing that.

CONAN: Why would - why do you think people outside the region maybe continue to associate a place like Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia with the racial violence that we all got familiar with, too familiar with back in the civil rights struggle and back from the days of Jim Crow and not Florida?

WILKERSON: I think a lot of the attention that accrued to the civil rights movement occur, you know, occurred in those states that you've mentioned and Mississippi. We think of - and then Selma, Alabama. We often think of those places as the focal points for civil rights movement. And, in fact, it's true that many of the great battles of the civil rights movement occurred in other states, but Florida has - the histories of - the history of Florida and the events and circumstances that occurred there occurred in the 1940s, the 1950s, and I think our memories tend to be much shorter when it comes to that. And also because Florida has changed so much economically. It's now got Disney World and it has so much development in the southern part that I think that that's kind of overshadowed our vision and image of what that state really is.

CONAN: Isabel Wilkerson, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as the Latino population moves in to that part of the state and, indeed, overtakes the African-American population in terms of numbers by quite a bit, then there is no longer that binary relationship. How do these new immigrants, these new arrivals, I should say, how do they enter the equation?

WILKERSON: Well, what scholars are discovering is that they - the new arrivals are coming from parts of Latino America, meaning parts of Central and South America, that are different from the traditional ones that we often associate with Florida, meaning Cubans coming in. And so the people who are the newer arrivals are coming from other parts. They're coming from Guatemala. They're coming from parts of Mexico that had not been part of the sending states before into the United States. And so they are actually bringing with them the hierarchies, the social hierarchies that they had in their home regions. And that means they come in with the assumptions about who is on top and who is on the bottom in this country.

CONAN: And those assumptions, do they reinforce the old caste system?

WILKERSON: They actually do reinforce the caste system that had been in the South and much of the rest of the country for so long. It turns out that those attitudes are showing up in recent studies. There's a study out of Durham, North Carolina, in which it was found that 78 percent of Latino respondents said that they felt they had more in common with whites, and 53 percent of them said they had the least in common with blacks. And so they also had more negative views of African-Americans than did the native white population in those places.

CONAN: And does this - do these attitudes affect younger people in the same way they might affect older people who may remember the history?

WILKERSON: Well, this is often passed down from generation to generation. The assumptions have a lot to do with the survival in an often difficult economic situation, changing demographics, and everyone positioning oneself in order to be able to survive, and it's a survival mechanism and it's quite human, unfortunately.

CONAN: And things have been tough in this part of Florida as, indeed, they have been throughout the state.

WILKERSON: Absolutely.

CONAN: And as you look ahead, the Trayvon Martin case has focused attention on Sanford, Florida. The city itself, well, we've heard about some of the problems in the very recent past. You've illuminated some of the problems that have been talked about through the 20th century, indeed, but it's going to be a very different place in years to come.

WILKERSON: Well, it is going to be a very different place, and a lot of it will be determined by how these different groups find a way to learn from what we know and what has gone on before. If there's a way that people can find that they actually do have linked fates, that they actually - that how one group fairs, the other groups will fair. And that means all of these - the traditional mix that had been in these states before and the newcomers as well. I mean, there has to be a way that they have to find in order to coexist.

CONAN: I think we may have time for one call. As it happens, it's from Sanford, Florida. Charles is on the line.

CHARLES: Yes. I'm a 28-year-old college student, white, but I've grown up in Orlando my entire life, and people my age, 30 to - I mean, younger, we don't seem to have the problems that are being described. Obviously, this case has brought a lot to the forefront, and we openly discuss this. And some people that I know that are African-American can see both sides of it. They - obviously, they feel the racial issue, but as far as the history of the town goes, I mean, to us, it's history. I mean, I'm a history major. I mean, I have a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Central Florida, and I'm currently going to be in the master's program in the fall semester. We don't really tie that into what's happening now. I mean, it's a lot of, you know...

CONAN: Charles, I don't mean to cut you off, but we're running out of time. I wanted to give Isabel Wilkerson a chance to respond.

WILKERSON: I think that that's a wonderful point that you make. I just got back from Florida, and I found there to be a tremendous well of progressive views about this, of openness and a willingness to embrace the history. I think that this has fostered more conversation among people. And as you stated about African-Americans' response, the caller mentioning of that, is that the studies also show that African-Americans tend to be kind of in the middle in all of this actually. They tend to view Latinos more favorably than one - than the Latinos view them. And so that means that there's a well of goodwill toward people that is a reason for hope, I think, going forward.

CONAN: Charles, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Isabel Wilkerson, thank you for your time.

WILKERSON: Thank you.

CONAN: There's a link to Isabel Wilkerson's piece, "Trayvon's Killing and the Florida's Tragic Past," at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.