Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

Try As DeSantis May, No Denying Violent Racist History Of Florida

Phil Garber
10 min readAug 29


In Gov. Ron DeSantis’s world, students can be compassionate and intelligent without knowing about “Ax Handle Saturday,” Johnnie Mae Chappell or J.C. Patrick.
The Republican governor and GOP presidential candidate would have people believe that they can understand about Ryan Christopher Palmeter, without knowing the depth and breath of historical racism in the Sunshine State.
DeSantis is living in a fantasy world if he thinks that African Americans don’t already know in their bones about the history of racial brutality and inequity in Florida. He is probably right in claiming that white residents don’t want to hear about the shameful past of racism so that they can more easily make Florida “great again.”
The latest incident of racism came on Saturday when a 21-year-old white man gunned down three African Americans in a store in Jacksonville, Fla. The day was the anniversary of the worst racist attack in the city’s history, two days before the 60th anniversary of the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and on the same day that thousands commemorated the civil rights milestone in a march in the nation’s capital.
The killer, Ryan Christopher Palmeter, who committed suicide after the bloody spree, was heard yelling racial slurs, had swastikas drawn on his firearm and left behind a racist screed on his home computer.
Early Saturday afternoon, Palmeter first tried to enter Edward Waters University off nearby Kings Road, but was refused entry. Shortly before 1 p.m., he proceeded to the nearby Dollar General Store, where he wore a shirt over a tactical vest, a mask and gloves, and was armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a Glock handgun, which were both legally purchased.
He began his rampage at around 1:08 p.m. when he fired 11 times at his first victim, Angela Michelle Carr, 52, who was waiting in a car in the parking lot at the store. Palmeter then went into the store and shot and killed store employee, Anolt Joseph A.J. Laguerre Jr., 29. The killer chased some customers out of the store for unknown reasons and then returned to kill Jerrald De’Shaun Gallion, 19. The gunman then briefly pursued and shot at an unidentified woman, though he did not injure her. Sheriff’s deputies arrived to hear one gunshot, the sound of the gunman killing himself.
The original intended site for the massacre was apparently Edward Waters University, a private Christian historically Black university. The school was founded in 1866 by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church) as a school to educate freedmen and their children. It was the first independent institution of higher education and the first historically black college in Florida.
The Justice Department is investigating the attack as a racially motivated act of violent extremism. The F.B.I.’s latest 2021 report showed that hate crimes overall had increased by more than 11 percent since 2020. Blacks were the most common targets, with 31 percent of all single-bias incidents in 2021.
The Anti-Defamation League found that the past two years has seen a significant increase in extremist related incidents both nationwide and in Florida.
“These incidents have been driven, in part, by widespread disinformation and conspiracy theories which have animated extremists and fueled antisemitism,” the report said.
Florida is home to an extensive, interconnected network of white supremacists and other far-right extremists. The network, often collaborates in planning and distributing propaganda, banner drops and in-person demonstrations. Florida was the state with the eighth-highest level of white supremacist activity in 2021, according to the report.
From January 2020 to August 2022, the ADL Center on Extremism (COE) recorded more than 400 instances of white supremacist propaganda distribution in Florida. The overwhelming majority of the incidents involved the white supremacist groups Patriot Front and the New Jersey European Heritage Association.
Florida is home to the most people charged in relation to the January 6,2021, insurrection at the Capitol by trump supporters. Of the 855 individuals charged in connection with the riot, 90 (10.5 percent) came from Florida, the report said.
In May, Democrat Donna Deegan was elected mayor in a town where Republican mayors had been in power for all but four of the last 30 years. One of her new appointments was a chief of diversity, equity and inclusion. The $185,000-a-year position was defunded last week by the City Council.
The latest violence came on the 63rd anniversary of a day of white racist carnage, known as “Ax Handle Saturday.” It was early in the Civil Rights struggle, a time when public places, like restrooms and restaurants were clearly segregated. On Aug. 27, 1960, around 35, mostly African Americans were engaged in peaceful, sit-in protests to integrate Woolworth’s lunch counter, near what was previously called Hemming Park.
A mob of 150 to 200 white men arrived, some wearing Confederate uniforms and some likely members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council. They used ax handles, bats and other weapons to attack the group in the shadow of the nearby Confederate Memorial also known as the Confederate Monument and Confederate Soldiers of Florida. The memorial was installed in 1898 and following a public outcry, was removed in June 2020.
Newly located, video footage of the graphic violence of the day was released two years ago by the Jacksonville Historical Society. The mob can be seen marching down the street. Then the video jumps to a group of men running. About 18 seconds in, the mob can be seen beating Black men with ax handles, punching them in the face and throwing them to the ground.
Retired Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Chief Charles Scrivens recalled in an interview that he was a sergeant at the time and that most Black officers who were on duty were ordered not to help protect the young protesters. Scrivens said that Black police officers were hired to be a buffer between white officers and the Black community and were ordered not to leave their assigned jurisdiction, which was an area of mostly Black residents.
After the attacks, the segregationst mayor and future governor, W. Haydon Burns, denied there was any violence at the bloodbath wrought by the white mob on the African American demonstrators.
“Not a single member of one group came into contact with a member of the opposite group,” said Burns who later tried to blame the incident on visitors.
He lied. The police chief said the assailants were all local residents. The confrontation left many protesters wounded and bloodied.
The local media ignored the story but the national media caught wind of it and the attack was reported in national media across the country, including the Pittsburgh Courier, N.Y. Times and others.

Burns has been an extremely popular mayor through the years. He was Mayor from 1949 to 1965 and was re-elected four times, the longest consecutive stint of any mayor in the city’s history. He went on to serve as the 35th Governor of Florida from 1965 to 1967.
Jacksonville’s main public library was built in 1965 and was named the Haydon Burns Library. In 1966, another building opened and was named the W. Haydon Burns Building. It was later home to the Florida Department of Transportation. In 2004, the city renamed the old City Hall, as the Haydon Burns City Hall Annex.
The park where much of the mayhem was focused has since been renamed James Weldon Johnson Park, after the first executive secretary of the NAACP.
Rioting broke out again in 1964 when, according to a March 25 story in the N.Y. Times, “RIOTING NEGROES STONE THE POLICE IN JACKSONVILLE; Mob Burns Car and Beats Newsman — Troopers Join in Patrolling the City.” More than 260 people were arrested in incidents during the two days of violence.

The riots claimed one life. Johnnie Mae Chappell, a mother of 10 children, was murdered on March 23, 1964, when she was shot from a passing car. After evidence and documents went missing, her killer was charged with manslaughter and served just three years in prison while the other passengers were never charged.
Chappell, 35, worked as a cleaner and her husband, Willie, worked two jobs. She was walking along U.S. Route 1 northwest of the city looking for her wallet which had fallen from her bag while carrying groceries home. At about 7:40 p.m., four men drove past in a blue Plymouth, and one fired the fatal gunshot. Chappell bled to death in the rusted hearse a segregated black funeral home used as an ambulance. The stretch of road has since been renamed Johnnie Mae Chappell Parkway
The case went unsolved for months until two sheriff’s detectives, Lee Cody and Donald Coleman Sr., questioned a local man, Wayne Chessman, 21, about the murder. Chessman confessed to being in the car with three other men, and said one of them, a man named J.W. Rich, had fired the gun. Chessman, Rich and the other passengers were later arrested. The officers went to review the paperwork about the investigation and found it was missing. They later discovered a pile of papers under the office mat of their boss, Detective Chief James Patrick Sr. The papers included a report on Chappell along with about 30 other reports involving cases which Patrick Sr. wanted dropped.
The four men were tried but the gun used in the shooting went missing and the detectives were not asked to testify about the confessions. The jury found Rich innocent of murder but convicted him of manslaughter as Rich claimed that he didn’t intend to kill Chappell.
The Miami Herald reported on Dec. 2, 1964, that “The defense claimed the killing was an innocent mistake. The boys were just out having some fun. They didn’t intend to kill anybody. Surely the all white male jury could understand young men getting a thrill from driving fast cars and shooting guns. The bullet had bounced off the ground and struck Johnnie Mae by accident.”
Rich served three years of a 10-year sentence, and Cody and Coleman were demoted and later fired by Detective Chief Patrick after complaining about racism and corruption in the department. Patrick was placed on leave for tampering with evidence in 1965.
Patrick was known as an alcoholic who often included beatings as part of his interrogations. He would to take his son, Patrick Jr., to Ku Klux Klan rallies. One day his son came home to find Patrick beating the boy’s mother. In defending his mother, the younger Patrick shot to death Duval County’s chief homicide investigator.
In 2005 Cody and Shelton filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville and the men in the car. The suit was dismissed but then-Gov. Jeb Bush asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to re-open the murder investigation. The outcome of the suit could not be discerned.
Cody and Coleman reportedly had compiled a dossier on corruption and wrongdoing in Jacksonville Sheriff Dale Carson’s administration. They gave the information to Gov. Haydon Burns and the FBI, but nothing happened. In 1967, they reported the same information to Gov. Claude Kirk. In 1978, they gave it to Gov. Reubin Askew. And in 1979, they passed the damning information on to Gov. Bob Graham and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. No action was ever taken.
Another time when simmering racial tensions boiled over in Jacksonville came on Oct. 31, 1969, when a white cigarette salesman thought his car was being burglarized by 20-year-old African American Buck Riley. The salesman fired his gun at Riley who ran for his life towards a group of school children, as the truck driver fired his gun into the crowd.
Soon a crowd of residents flipped the salesman’s truck and set fire to many of the buildings. What was not burned was looted as rioters threw rocks through the windows of businesses. Police arrested 11 people with 10 charged for disobeying police officers and using profanity. Charges were dropped against Riley and the salesman.
In an earlier racist lynching, on Sept. 8, 1919, a mob of 50 white men killed two African Americans, Bowman Cook and John Morine. It was the time of the Red Summer of 1919 time when Black veterans returned from the war determined to overcome racism and discrimination at home and many white communities responded with violence.
In an era when accusations against Black people rarely faced scrutiny, police alleged that a white man was killed by Cook and Morine. Three weeks later, before either man could stand trial, a mob abducted them from the Duval County Jail, drove them to North Main Street and Cemetery Road, and fatally shot them. They left Morine’s body in a ditch, then dragged Cook’s corpse behind a car for nearly 50 blocks before dumping his mangled remains on Hogan Street near the Confederate monument in Hemming Park.
Red Summer was a period in mid-1919 when white supremacist terrorism and racial riots occurred in more than three dozen cities. Between January 1 and Sept. 14, 1919, white mobs lynched at least 43 African Americans, with 16 hanged and others shot; and another eight men were burned at the stake. The states were unwilling to interfere or prosecute the mob murders.
Riots were a result of a combination of post-World War I social tensions. It was a time when black and white members of the Armed Forces came home to an economy that was already slumping. Increased competition in the job and housing markets fueled resentment between ethnic European Americans and African Americans. Additionally, the federal government feared socialist and communist influence on the black civil rights movement following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
The term “Red Summer” was made by James Weldon, who had been a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1916. The phrase reflected the African American blood spilled during riots and the public fear of socialist and communist influence on the civil rights movement in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
Red Summer also was a time in Jacksonville when several Black taxi drivers were killed by white riders. Jacksonville officials refused to investigate, placing Black drivers at greater risk. To protect themselves, Black cab drivers began refusing white passengers. When a white rider was refused service in August 1919, he indiscriminately fired a handgun into a crowd of Black people, killing one man.
Jacksonville, located on the Atlantic coast of northeastern Florida, is known as “The Bold New City of the South.” It is the largest city in Florida, with a 2020 population of 949,611. As of 2020, 51.2 percent of the population was white and 31 percent was African American, with the balance a combination of Hispanic, Asian and mixed.
The state was founded on June 15, 1822, and was named after President Andrew Jackson. In 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. The act of ethnic cleansing displaced tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi and resulted in thousands of deaths. Like most planters in the Southern United States, Jackson used slave labor. In 1804, Jackson had nine African American slaves; by 1820, he had over 100; and by his death in 1845, he had over 150. Over his lifetime, he owned a total of 300 slaves.



Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer