History of Race in Pensacola

In 2008, we published a cover story by Scott Satterwhite on the history of race in Pensacola ( Pensacola’s 450 Years of Race History). There was a time Pensacola was one of the most diverse and tolerant cities in the country. Pensacola was predominantly black, according to the 1900 census.

The African-American educator Booker T. Washington famously described Pensacola in this era as a “typical Negro business community.” The Pensacola that Washington described was one that had recently boasted a black mayor, black city aldermen, black police officers, and a thriving African-American business community that served the entire community, along with a large black middle class.

The advent of Jim Crow racial separation laws forced long-standing black businesses out of the downtown area, removed residents from their neighborhoods, eliminated job openings to blacks and began to disenfranchise black voters from government.

In addition to Jim Crow, the rise in local lynching created a traumatizing effect on the African-American community. Beginning in the late 1800s, Escambia County was the scene of several lynching instances. These included the prominent hanging of two African-American men in the center of Ferdinand Plaza, with hundreds of white residents in attendance.

By 1920, the black population decreased by half. A quarter of the city’s population was forced to remain separated from the white majority.

World War II forced a dramatic movement to change the South. Again, Pensacola was no exception. During the war, occasional conflicts erupted over law enforcement’s treatment of African-American troops stationed at local military bases, according to James McGovern’s history of early 20th century Pensacola, “The Emergence of a City in the Modern South.”

Black soldiers who came home from the war were less willing to silent accept the discrimination.

In 1960, the “separate but equal” policy in Escambia County public schools was shattered by an African-American physician named Charles Augustus, who wanted to have his daughter, Karen, attend O.J. Semmes Elementary School. The case was taken to federal court, where the judge ruled in favor of the Augustus family in 1961.

That year, over 200 black students applied for reassignment.

Escambia County schools experienced another major eruption of racial tension when in 1972 race riots broke out at a football game. Escambia High, whose mascot was a Confederate soldier, had been forcibly desegregated only three years earlier. The public school continued to fly the Rebel Flag and play “Dixie” as its school song over the objection of African-American students who felt the symbols were offensive.

Karen Augustus, the young woman who helped desegregate local schools, lent her name to a lawsuit that challenged the right of the school to use the offending symbols. At first, Augustus won her case, but an appeals court overturned the decision and said the school board should decide.

A vote was held on whether to change the mascot. On Feb. 4, 1976, the Rebel mascot lost by failing to gain a supermajority of the board’s vote.

The next day a riot ensued. Four students were shot and several more were injured. Days later, crosses burned in several of the county school board members’ yards.

On Friday, Jan. 24, 1975, an estimated 400 people marched down Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola to the steps of the Escambia County Courthouse to protest a grand jury found a deputy innocent in the killing of an unarmed black man.

Three weeks of nightly protests followed in front of the Escambia County Sheriff’s headquarters, culminating in an incident that occurred on Feb. 24, 1975. Sheriff Untreiner ordered approximately 70 deputies armed with clubs to disperse the crowd with force. In the ensuing melee, protesters were beaten and arrested. The total number of arrests was confirmed with 34 adults and 13 juveniles who were ultimately charged with unlawful assembly and malicious trespass.

Three days later, Rev. H. K. Matthews and Rev. B. J. Brooks were charged with felony extortion. Matthews and Brooks were convicted of the extortion charges by an all-white jury. Brooks was sentenced to five years probation and Matthews to five years of imprisonment.

After serving 63 days, Matthews and Brooks both received clemency; however, the damage was already inflicted. Due to being blacklisted, Matthews had to move to nearby Alabama. Matthews and Brooks were eventually pardoned.

We reported on that last year – A Cycle of Injustice.