The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hurricanes have hampered racial justice activism in the past

How recovery from Hurricane Ian can hamper social justice

Remains of destroyed restaurants, shops and other businesses are seen after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
7 min

On Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian barreled into the southwest Florida coast as the fifth-most powerful hurricane to ever strike the United States. Storm surge reached upward of 12 feet, and the storm dropped nearly 20 inches of rain on the region. As of Oct. 12, officials have recorded 127 deaths. That number is expected to increase over the next few weeks.

Hurricanes and other natural disasters have a history of causing devastation in ways well beyond the structural, physical and emotional destruction that typically comes to mind and that we are seeing in Florida. While the full scope of Hurricane Ian’s ultimate impact is unclear, Florida hurricanes have a history of reinforcing existing inequality and have hurt efforts aimed at racial and social justice.

A lynching in LaBelle, Fla., in 1926, provides just one example. LaBelle sits roughly 30 miles east of Fort Myers and 30 miles west of Lake Okeechobee. In 1926, the town found itself in the throes of a land boom. Property values increased as speculation about new businesses coming to the region spread. It is within this context that the town decided to invest heavily in a highway that would connect the town to both of Florida’s coasts.

To help build the road, an out-of-state contractor hired hundreds of African American workers and brought them to the town of roughly 1,000 White and only a few dozen Black residents. The Black workers were met with frustration and resentment among White locals who were firmly ensconced in the ideology of the Jim Crow South that justified the legal segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans because of their supposed inferiority and threat to White communities.

Soon a Black construction worker named Henry Patterson was accused of trying to assault a White woman named Hattie Crawford. Crawford later admitted the accusation was baseless. Nonetheless, as in many of the 319 lynchings known to have occurred in Florida, a mob formed and brutally lynched Patterson, claiming to protect the community, and White women specifically, from the threat of dangerous Black men.

What stood out in Patterson’s case was the response. Local county prosecutor Herbert Rider, Judge Wesley Richards and other locals decried the lynching and quickly convened a coroner’s inquest to investigate. They subpoenaed more than 100 witnesses and, after a week of interviews, issued arrest warrants for over a dozen White locals who participated in the lynching.

The effort to prosecute members of the lynch mob attracted support from across the state and country. News of the lynching spread, as reports appeared in newspapers as far away as New York City and Los Angeles. In response, the governor of Florida sent in the National Guard to assist in the investigation into the lynching, and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune facilitated communications between Rider and the national NAACP office, which sent $300 to help in the prosecution. James Weldon Johnson, the executive secretary of the NAACP, saw this as a real opportunity to bring members of a lynch mob to justice, writing that this seemed to be “one of the few cases in which there seems to be any reaction on the part of the local whites for justice.” Soon Rider and others formed a fundraising committee that attracted wide support from a range of state and national organizations, including the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

But then things began to unravel. After a change of venue hearing in late June 1926, the grand jury trial was set to occur in late November in Lee County (Fort Myers). And then, on Sept. 18, 1926, a massive category four hurricane hit Miami. The Great Miami Hurricane was described by the Miami Weather Bureau Office’s Official in Charge Richard Gray as “the most destructive storm in the history of the United States” at the time. According to the Red Cross, at least 372 people died in the storm and more than 6,000 people were injured. The damage in South Florida was estimated at $105 million in 1926 ($164 billion in today’s dollars).

The storm sapped attention from the prosecution of the lynchers of Patterson. The momentum and attention garnered by the initial investigation and arrests in May and June had dissipated.

As the state focused on recovery efforts, the importance of a lynching case in a small town dwindled. The lack of public attention meant there was less external pressure to secure a conviction, and by November, it appeared that many locals just wanted the case to go away.

Furthermore, the local land boom came to a crashing halt, hurting the state and local economy, which meant that many of those who had been willing to put resources behind the drive for justice were no longer in a position to do so. According to historian Jerrell H. Shofner, “people who had pledged aid to the LaBelle committee were either economically ruined by the floods or they concentrated their efforts on aiding the homeless hurricane victims.” Plus, as the town of LaBelle suffered nearly $300,000 in damages, many of the region’s residents — including some of the prosecution’s witnesses — were forced to move out of town or even out of state.

Rider lamented: “Unless some strong force or pressure is brought to bear … I am apprehensive that there is going to be a gross miscarriage of justice.” In December, the grand jury found no justification for continuing the prosecution of the arrested mob members and all were released from custody, facing no legal repercussions for killing Patterson. The prosecution that attracted so much state and national attention just a few months earlier disappeared from the mainstream press.

Although it had been difficult and rare for courts of law to secure convictions against lynch mob participants throughout the early 20th century, the effects of the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane completely derailed what looked like unprecedented momentum, attention and effort to bring members of the lynch mob to justice.

There may be parallels today. When destruction is wrought on this scale, there is an often-unrecognized effect on activism. There are dozens of local nonprofits in Lee County and the surrounding area working on projects like affordable housing, environmental protection, racial justice and more. But in the wake of Hurricane Ian, it is unclear if those smaller organizations will survive. Recovery itself can reinforce inequality. Will most of the aid money go to rebuilding places like Sanibel Island, which is 98 percent White and has a median income of $93,000? Or will aid money be equitably distributed to places like Dunbar — the historically-Black community where the median income is $38,000 and many residents are uninsured — that also suffered damage from flooding and hurricane-force winds?

Above and beyond local issues, will national organizations that are challenging recent state laws, like the Parental Rights in Education and Stop Woke Act, continue to attract financial support for their lawsuits — when the governor and president stress that political issues should not interfere with the larger recovery effort? As money flows into immediate relief and recovery organizations, will longer-term efforts take a back seat? Is it possible that criticism of the DeSantis administration will be blunted as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) attempts to be the face of recovery efforts in the state?

As the nation comes to the aid of the southwest Florida community and the long process of rebuilding unfolds, there is an opportunity to remake the region in a way that is more environmentally conscious, racially just and socially equitable. But doing so requires sustained attention and care not to repeat the mistakes of the past, where major hurricanes have stymied activist efforts and reinforced inequities.