My favorite book is A Land Remembered. In addition to being a wonderful story, it is steeped in Florida history. Many of us who make Florida our home come from outside her boundaries so we don’t really know much about her history. It’s a shame because we can learn so much from events that occurred in the past.
A powerful new book, Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida, is about a period in our state’s history no one talks much about. The author, Billy Townsend, is a fellow Lakelander and former reporter for several Florida newspapers. The book focuses on what Townsend calls the “near civil war” that swept Florida between 1915 and 1930, in the aftermath of World War I and Prohibition.
One of the key characters is Sheriff Peter Hagan of Putnam County, a small county between Gainesville and St. Augustine. Its largest city is Palatka. Hagan was elected sheriff in 1916, and between 1919 and 1923, he stopped three attempts to lynch black men. In the third attempt, a mob of white men from Gainesville shot more than a dozen bullets into the Putnam County jail. They wounded Hagan in the hand and nearly hit his wife and daughter, who lived with him in the jail.
According to Townsend, Florida was the American capital of lynching in 1923, and its mobs rarely went away without their targets. But Peter Hagan sent this mob home defeated after fierce hand-to-hand combat and exchanges of gunfire.
About a year later, however, not long after he released a statement declaring his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, the people of Putnam County voted Hagan out of office. His defeat allowed the Klan to take over as Putnam County’s governing force. And it unleashed anti-liquor, anti-black and anti-Catholic mobs.
Between 1924 and 1928, more than 70 men and women, black and white, were abducted and savagely beaten by Klan mobs. At least four people, black and white, were killed.
It did not end until Hagan returned to the political scene. He ran for sheriff again in 1928, emphasizing his record of defending all people and preserving law and order. He won a narrow victory – by fewer than 60 votes -- in the Democratic primary. This election, Townsend argues, is one of the most significant and little known elections in Florida history.
It ended the chronic mob violence in Putnam County and dealt a major blow to the Klan’s ambitions of openly governing. Hagan died in office in 1930 from what appears to be a stroke. He lies buried next to his daughter Gertrude, his only child, and wife Sallie, in a tiny, virtually unmarked, grave in a Palatka cemetery.
We politicians can learn something from Peter Hagan’s example. The first is that doing the right thing often comes with personal and political consequences. Hagan bled and then lost an election to do his job. What have any of us in Florida’s legislature done to honor that standard?
More importantly, not every defeat is permanent. Sheriff Hagan stuck to his guns. He ran on his record of fighting mobs and the equal protection of all people, which was hard to imagine in 1928. He didn’t change who he was or reinvent himself. He gave the people who elected and then unelected him a chance to realize their mistakes. He believed in them. And they rewarded him with their votes.
There are lessons to be learned from Florida’s rich history and the brave and honorable leadership of people like Sheriff Peter Hagan.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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