Dear Governor DeSantis – You may want to know the history of Catholics in Florida before you keep manipulating the teaching of history

Editors Note: Timing is everything. The below column ran about a year ago and got very little traction. But this week we have our ongoing Albion Florida podcast series, dealing coincidentally with Catholicism (podcast will release Tuesday and was taped a month ago) and the State of Florida, banning textbooks, albeit math textbooks. And it’s Easter Sunday! So the timing dictates, we run this column again.

Governor DeSantis and his allies on the State Board of Education have banned the teaching of “Critical Race Theory.” This is fascinating given the ban which applies to public schools have never taught “Critical Race Theory,” something that is solely discussed at the University level.

However, with all of the recent discussions about “Critical Race Theory,” which focuses on race not enough time and effort is being spent on revisiting the history of religious discrimination in the United States which has often been neatly intertwined with racism, especially here in Florida.

I believe we should focus some serious time and effort on the plight of Catholics in Florida. Ironically, DeSantis himself is a practicing Catholic so maybe he’d be willing to allow people like me to formulate a “Critical Religious Theory” for Florida schools? Maybe DeSantis will realize he’s lucky to live in the 2000’s and not the 1900’s when Catholics were discriminated against in this state?

Thanks to Florida being settled by Spanish Catholics, as we’re discussing in our current Podcast series on the nation’s First Underground Railroad, a toleration (relative to the protestant run English/British colonies to the north) of runaway slaves and Native Americans developed in the colony.

Absent the gold of other Spanish colonies in the Americas, Spain actively looked for those who would “serve” the crown in its military and economic needs in Florida. This included enticing slaves from English territories to flee to Florida and achieve freedom if they converted to Catholicism. 

In Spanish Florida, run by Catholics, many African-Americans were freed and even armed to fight alongside white Catholics in defense of the colony.

When the British took over Florida in 1763, the inherited a Catholic population, though most had left the colony in fear of what the Anglican British would do. However, resettling the colony involved importing labor, much of it from Catholic areas with climate similar to Florida.

So by the time the American Revolution in 1775 began, both East and West Florida had a far larger percentage of Catholics than any of the Thirteen Colonies to the north. Even Maryland, founded as a Catholic colony had by this time a majority of protestants. Catholics were virtually non-existent in other parts of the Thirteen colonies.

British policy from the 1760’s onward was more lenient toward Catholics than it had been the previous century where Catholicism was largely banned in British holdings. While not promising Catholic emancipation (this would not come until 1829, The Crown did seek a reconciliation with Catholics. It’s worth noting many non-Anglican protestant denominations had sympathy for the Revolution and were openly anti-Catholic. Many of the colonists anger with Britain stemmed from the Quebec Act of 1774 which they saw as indulging the newly conquered French-Canadian Catholics the crown now ruled over. They also feared it would establish Catholicism as the de-facto religion in areas of the Northwest (now the American Midwest) they wished to settle.

So Florida began as a bastion of Catholicism, but eventually became a typical southern state with a plantation-based economy after the US assumed control in 1821. As Florida integrated into the south, it was populated almost entirely by enslaved African-Americans and white protestants. Anti-Catholicism predictably rose.

By 1880, Florida had very few Catholics and as immigration of Catholics increased into the United States in the early 1900’s, candidates in Florida’s ruling Democratic Party became more and more openly anti-Catholic. By the 1910’s Anti-Catholicism would be an open part of a larger racist narrative painted by Florida Democrats. This came at a time when Florida, not Mississippi or Alabama led the nation in lynchings of African-Americans per capita.

In 1916, Sidney Catts was elected Governor of Florida after being denied the Democratic nomination in a recount. Catts secured the nomination of the Prohibition Party and was elected. Catts talked extensively about political & bureaucratic reform and married that rhetoric with overt racism and anti-Catholicism. In a November 2019 edition of the Florida History Podcast we discuss Catts, and populist racism in early 20th Century Florida.

The same day as Catts was elected Governor, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat who had screened the pro- Ku Klux Klan film “Birth of a Nation” at the White House and had endorsed it’s skewed version of history was reelected as President.

Sidney J. Catts – By Bain (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia

Fear of Catholics and a potential “takeover” of Florida by the Papacy was part of Catts standard messaging. At one point Catts even claimed the Catholic Church was planning on relocating from the Vatican to San Antonio in Pasco County. The anti-Catholic rhetoric was part of a populist attack on immigration.

Here is an excerpt from Catts inauguration speech given in January 1917:

“Your triumph is no less in this good hour in beautiful Florida, for you have withstood the onslaughts of the county and state political rings, the corporations, the railroads, the fierce opposition of the press and organization of the negro voters of this state  against you and the power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy against you. Yet over all of these the common people of Florida, the everyday cracker people have triumphed.”

Catts rhetoric would foreshadow that of Father Coughlin nationally in the 1930s (Coughlin would replace anti-Catholicism with antisemitism) and that of Huey Long in Louisiana. Populism by this time had given way to the progressive movement, but that largely Midwestern based push was largely absent from Florida politics, particularly in the 1920s as the state exploded with new growth thanks to a land boom.

In 1928, Florida, long part of the “solid” Democratic south, broke with the party to support Republican Herbert Hoover for President. Why? Hoover’s Democratic opponent was the first major party nominee in American History that was Catholic – Al Smith.

Anti-Catholicism continued as a underlying issue in Florida, though overwhelmed by racism.

I have had people tell me that in 1960, some of the hostility to John F. Kennedy who won most of the south (his biggest margin of victory percentage wise was in neighboring Georgia) lost Florida to Richard Nixon because JFK was a Catholic.

Governor DeSantis is lucky – he has grown up in an era where Catholics don’t face blatant discrimination in a more cosmopolitan Florida. But had DeSantis been born 50 years earlier, he’d never have been Governor and likely himself would have faced some real hostility.

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