A little while back, for Memorial Day, I posted about the all-black 10th Cavalry unit and its time camping in Lakeland in 1898 in preparation for deployment to Cuba for the Spanish-American War, where it fought bravely and well by all accounts. Five of its members won the Medal of Honor for valor.
I noted that various mentions of the 10th’s stay in Lakeland cited racial tension and mistreatment from the city, which fed into to some sort of armed confrontation.
I have recently found in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s archives a rather detailed account of what happened. This was a big deal. The New York Times also reported on it.
I have learned over the last year or so, while reading a lot old newspapers, that the establishment papers of the day must be taken with a large grain of salt whenever they discuss the facts of a racially charged incident. That is certainly the case here. But what the story describes is complex, fascinating, and profound.
Without further adieu, from the June 16, 1898, edition of the Atlanta Constitution:
NEGRO SOLDIERS AS RIOTERS
The True Story of the Blacks Uprising in Camp
SOLDIER KILLED BY NEGROES
The Murderers Placed on Trial and Convicted.
LYNCHING WAS NARROWLY AVERTED.
Negro Soldiers Have an Abnormal Idea of Their Equality with the Whites.
Lakeland, Fla., June 16–(Special Staff Correspondence)–The rioting between the negroes and the whites, which has been widely reported to have taken place in Tampa, really happened here, and only the embarkation of the belligerents put a stop to it. Lakeland has been the headquarters of the 9th and 10th cavalry, which is made up entirely of negroes, and of a number of regiments of white mounted troopers. They were encamped close together, and from the very beginning there was friction between them. It ended one night in a free fight, during the progress of which many on both sides were more or less severely injured, and Joab Collins, a white cavalryman, was killed.
For his murder, two negroes named James Johnson and John Young were arrested, and put in jail. They were tried here yesterday, and Young was acquitted and Johnson convicted of murder in the second degree. [Ed note: Compare that with the headline declaring that “murderers,” plural, were convicted.] United States Circuit Judge Barron Phillips presided at the trial, and State Attorney Wall prosecuted the accused. Three well-known lawyers were appointed to take charge of the defense, and the court suspended sentence until next Wednesday, when it will reassemble to hear argument in favor of a new trial for Johnson. It was mighty fortunate for the prisoners [Ed note, again: one of whom was found innocent.] that when the verdict was announced the white troopers were herded on board the transports and a long ways out of danger distance.
Trouble from the Start
The Rev. W.H. Steinmeyer, of the Methodist Church here, has been trying to pour oil on the troubled waters from the very beginning, but without much success. He said to me this afternoon:
“The night following the murder of Joab Collins was one of terror to the village. The negro troops were very much incensed at the treatment they fancied themselves to have received, and swore vengeance against the town. Serious threats were made and I believe they intended burning the town and killing every white person in sight. To make the situation all the more alarming, General Young put the blacks on guard for the night in the face of the crime already committed.
“A body of Massachusetts infantry came in just on time to avert the calamity. On learning the situation they broke open the car door, seized their ammunition, and succeeded in securing a semblance of order. Although Lakeland is a temperance town, there is much drunkenness. Hundreds of empty whiskey flasks may be found near the camps.
“A white officer gave as a reason for the conduct of the troops that they could not get shaved in the barber shops run white men, were not desired at the soda fountains, and on the whole were not placed on an equality with the whites. A few days ago, a white private, accompanied by two negroes, walked into a fashionable soda water saloon, laid a revolver on the counter and ordered three drinks. [ed note: how about that? Whoa.] He got them, but a short time thereafter the place was closed and the sign on the door read, ‘No soda water.’ Should any more colored troops be sent to Lakeland,” concluded Mr. Steinmeyer, “I shall use my best efforts to have the town placed under martial law.”
A Source of Disorder
This is not a time to go into the details of the conflict between the races, but it begins to look as though the government’s method of camping them together indiscriminately will be abandoned when the next camp is formed. The average colored soldier increases a hundredfold in his personal estimation of himself as soon as he gets a uniform and a gun, and he immediately insists upon maintaining a social equality between himself and the whites that would not suggest itself to him under ordinary circumstances. [emphasis mine] The result is always conflict, and ever since the troops got here, there has been a constant friction between the negroes and the white men that has proven the most unpleasant feature of life in camp.
The black cavalry regiments are well-officered, and Capt. William H. Beck, an old Indian fighter, said to me today that they would give a good account of themselves in action. [ed note: He was right. They damn sure did.] We all hope and believe they will. But as associates of the whites in camp, they are an element of discord and disorder too pronounced to be ignored. They have been put aboard separate transports, and from now on–except as an integral part of the invading army– they will be kept by themselves as much as possible. Why they should desire it otherwise is a mystery that the army officers have long since cease to worry their heads about. The only solution is to divorce them completely.
This is America–the real America, the America I love–forming itself violently, brutally, hypocritically right here in the core of Lakeland. I could spend pages and pages and pages writing about all the currents at work in those eight paragraphs: The military as reluctant vehicle for social upheaval; the complex relations of soldiers; the evolving standards of newspapers; the politics of “temperance” and eventually prohibition; Protestantism and southern order; and the power of arming oneself; our notions of manhood and citizenship. The list goes on and on.
But I’ll spare you and just hit a couple of high notes.
1) Note the complete lack of specificity with which Rev. Steinmeyer describes black misbehavior. This is numbingly typical. In the World War I and post World War I-era of the 20s and the Klan, these types of racially charged conflicts happened regularly. Almost invariably, from my reading, the black media accounts give specific examples of behavior and death. White accounts, almost invariably, speak vaguely of disorder and appalling conduct without ever specifying what it is. They often say unverifiable things like: “Serious threats were made and I believe they intended burning the town and killing every white person in sight.” This is why the courts were so important; they allowed, in some instances, the defendants to cross examine this hysteria and survive, as John Young did. James Johnson was sentenced to life in prison.
Actually, malicious vagueness was tradition, dating at least to Reconstruction when phrases like “Carpetbag Rule” and “lawlessness” and “abused authority” and “roaming negroes” were used to justify the murderous terrorism of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s version of the Klan, which killed thousands and burned countless black schools and farmhouses in the name of restoring order where disorder did not generally exist. Forrest’s name remains on many a high school in the south. Keep in mind, no matter how we’d like to pretend otherwise or just ignore it, the statue of Johnny Reb there in the middle of Munn Park, presumably right where much of the 1898 conflict went down, is a monument in its way to that murderous terrorism.
2) The mental image of the white private slamming down his gun on the counter and ordering sodas for himself and the two black soldiers gives me chills. I would give my right arm to know the circumstances that led to that scene and where it happened. I like to think of them as walking into what is now Main Street Creamery at the corner of Main and Tennessee, but I don’t have any real reason to think that. A great novel or short story or movie lurks in how those three men came to enter that store together and what followed. Multi-racial resistance to segregation did not begin with buses and Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama. It began with segregation. And it wasn’t always non-violent.
3) Finally, I don’t know if Florida Southern College or Lakeland’s high schools mention this at all in teaching American history. I greatly doubt it. But it ought to be mandatory. Downtown Lakeland, stretching from Lake Morton, where the Massachusetts troops camped, to Lake Wire, where the 10th camped, provides one giant outdoor classroom.
And I would argue that this news account–a significant story in the Atlanta Constitution–reveals the single most nationally important historical event ever to happen in Lakeland, even with all the huge holes it leaves us to fill with our imaginations.
Let’s look at two passages near the end again real quick:
“The average colored soldier increases a hundredfold in his personal estimation of himself as soon as he gets a uniform and a gun, and he immediately insists upon maintaining a social equality between himself and the whites that would not suggest itself to him under ordinary circumstances.”
“…as associates of the whites in camp, [black soldiers] are an element of discord and disorder too pronounced to be ignored. They have been put aboard separate transports, and from now on–except as an integral part of the invading army– they will be kept by themselves as much as possible. Why they should desire it otherwise is a mystery that the army officers have long since cease to worry their heads about. The only solution is to divorce them completely.”
These two paragraphs, at the time they were written, were almost certainly true–and incompatible with each other.
I can draw a straight line from that paradox to how the country decided to fight World War I and address the overwhelming patriotic response of black Americans to it, a response this country’s history textbooks and popular culture has almost completely ignored or forgotten.
Precisely to avoid these tensions, the U.S. Army decided not to deploy any of the four all-black regular army regiments, including the 10th, to Europe, thereby depriving itself of four highly-effective and battle-hardened units. That led directly to what’s called The Houston Mutiny in 1917, when members of the all-black 24th infantry turned violently against the city of Houston in response to segregation and mistreatment by police, leaving many Houston police and civilians dead. Go read about it. I think it’s the single most underknown event in American history. Perhaps that’s because all of the accounts differ, making it next to impossible to ascertain what actually happened; or perhaps because it does not provide any heroes or villains–just conflict. In any event, Lakeland’s murky and frightening experience served as an absolute dress rehearsal for it.
In World War I, the army strictly segregated training camps and severely limited black opportunities to fight, choosing instead to use most draftees and volunteers as labor, although many of the units that did fight distinguished themselves. And the labor accomplished amazing things and died in great numbers because of disease and fatigue. It was the first time black America as a whole participated as citizens in a national undertaking, and it did so with sacrifice and zeal. The men returned from their battlefields and flu-ridden labor camps to the Klan and pogroms, especially in Florida.
But black America’s World War I insistence on full citizenship in this country signed the death warrant for legal discrimination, although it took the tactic of non-violence to execute it in the 50s and 60s. In the chaos of Lakeland in late spring 1898, which previewed World War I, one sees the wrenching beginnings of a new America.