Exploring African American History in Florida using Digitized Newspapers
African American History Month, celebrated in the United States during the month of February since 1976, is a time to reflect on the role African Americans play in our nation’s history and culture. Often this takes the form of celebrating the accomplishments of notable individuals, especially those who broke racial barriers. Here at the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper project, we want to take a moment to explore the everyday lives of African Americans living in Ocala and the surrounding area during the early part of the 20th century by calling attention to the paper’s “Colored People’s Department” column.
One of the many newspapers in our digital collection is the Ocala Evening Star. Published from 1895-1943 before joining with the Ocala Banner to form the Ocala Star-Banner, it continues to provide news for Marion County today. Like many white-owned papers during the early 20th century, racial issues are discussed in a manner that will shock and appall most people today. However, from January 28, 1902 to February 24, 1908 the paper regularly dedicated space for local African American news.
Known as the “Colored Folks Column” from 1902 to 1903 and the “Colored People’s Department” from 1904 until it ended, this section of the Ocala Evening Star offers a snapshot of African American life in Marion County. Topics include notices about illness and recovery, advertisements for welcoming stores and restaurants, marriage celebrations, deaths, and the availability of lodging and purchasable property. Of interest to historians and genealogists alike is the plethora of names and details about individuals living in the community as well as the businesses they patronized.
In addition to the above mentioned topics, religion also features prominently in these columns. This is likely due to the fact that its main editor was Rev. J.E.A. Keeler and also included frequent contributions from Rev. John H. Dickerson who served as pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church. In fact, it is rare to find a column that doesn’t include mention of a church service, camp meeting, or building project. Beyond advertising various events occurring at historically Black churches, occasional morality lessons also appear. These include a variety of topics such as admonishing drunkenness and encouragement to contribute to the community. It is in these moments that the editorial voice of the authors shines through.
The “Colored People’s Department” column vanishes from the publication quite suddenly. The last column is an editorial piece by Rev. John H. Dickerson critiquing the manner in which Florida primaries were run at the time. Was his piece too contentious for the newspaper? Were there unseen issues between the editors and the authors of this column? Or did the writers suddenly become overburdened with other commitments? Ultimately, we don’t know. But while less remarkable than the events typically discussed during African American History Month, the African American column in the Ocala Evening Star provides insight into the day to day lives of African Americans living in the Jim Crow South.