In his latest biography, Gary R. Mormino, a University of South Florida professor emeritus and scholar of Florida history, takes a deeper dive into the state’s World War II era and the leadership of former Gov. Millard Fillmore Caldwell through the lens of today.
From the book jacket: “…Caldwell (1897-1984) was once considered one of the greatest Floridians of his generation. Yet today he is known for his inability to adjust to the racial progress of the modern world. In this biography, … Mormino tackles the difficult question of how to remember yesterday’s heroes who are now known to have had serious flaws.’’
Learn more by reading the excerpt below.
Caldwell and Florida: The 1940s
The decade of the 1940s had taken the State of Florida on a wild roller coaster ride. In 1940, Caldwell was an unhappy U.S. congressman, on the eve of his return to his beloved Florida. In 1940, Arkansas and South Carolina both outranked Florida in population. But the war and its concentrated energies had catapulted Florida to new heights. The decade’s growth arc was especially striking when compared to other Southern states. Florida gained nearly a million new residents between 1940 and 1950, more than the combined demographic gains of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. In 1950, Florida’s population of 2,771,305 surpassed Arkansas and South Carolina, but also moved ahead of Iowa, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Writing in Fortune magazine in 1948, Lawrence Lessing captured the postwar pulse when he described what was happening to America’s southernmost state: “Florida enacts some essential melodrama of America, seen in a distorted mirror.” Visitors to St. Petersburg or Miami Beach could observe firsthand the startling images. Florida, historically one of America’s most youthful states, was acquiring touches of silver rinse and gray. By 1950, the median age of Miami Beach was forty-three, rising to fifty-four by the end of the decade. No American city had ever boasted such figures. Tourists detected a strange accent (Yiddish) as many of the newcomers were Eastern European Jewish immigrants. No Southern county rivaled Dade’s demographics: Its population included more New Yorkers than Georgians, more Michiganders than Alabamians. In St. Petersburg, the demographic rarity had occurred earlier and evolved more slowly. By the 1920s, city fathers had created an industry catering to retirees: dozens of cafeterias, shuffleboard and horseshoe courts, boarding houses and seasonal apartments, and societies such as the Three-Quarter Century Club. By 1950, the census confirmed what every motorist and shuffleboard court manager already knew: Almost one-quarter of the city’s residents were 65 and older. Among white residents, the proportion was considerably higher.
The source of Florida’s dynamic growth resulted from sustained migrations, not from an internal baby boom or a single event or source. The history of modern Florida can be interpreted through the dizzying set of migrations involving individuals, families, and groups. Military veterans, New York Jews and Italians, Midwestern retirees, and Caribbean immigrants flocked to the Sunshine State in the 1940s and beyond. Florida was becoming a state of fresh starts and second chances. The decade intensified what had been distinctive features of America: restlessness and rootlessness. In 1947, fully 70 million Americans were no longer living in the same house in which they had resided in 1940. Florida was fast becoming a place where almost everyone came from someplace else. In 1930, slightly over half of Floridians were natives born in the state. By 1950, that percentage had fallen to 43.5 percent, plunging to 36 percent a decade later.
Millard Caldwell adjusted uncomfortably to the profound changes sweeping across Florida. Caldwell’s bedrock had always been his past and present ties to rural Florida. But since the 1920s, White and Black Floridians had been fleeing rural hamlets and plantations for the urban North and cities such as Jacksonville, Orlando, and Miami. The decade of the Forties witnessed stagnation and decline in the Panhandle and North Florida, its timber largely cleared, its cotton no longer profitable, and its workforce unsettled or resettled. During the decade, the counties of Baker, Calhoun, Dixie, Flagler, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Holmes, Levy, Jackson, Jefferson, Liberty, Madison, Suwannee, Taylor, Wakulla, and Washington recorded a collective loss of 13,361 persons. During the same period, the counties of Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange, and Pinellas gained one-half million newcomers. In 1900, two of every three Floridians lived in North Florida; by midcentury, only one in three resided in the region. Governors Millard Caldwell and Fuller Warren, hailing from Milton, Blountstown, and Tallahassee, were becoming anachronisms.
Caldwell’s hometown and backyard could not avoid change. The Capitol City, a modest town of only 16,000 inhabitants on the eve of Pearl Harbor, swelled to 27,237 residents by 1950. Attracted by wartime demands and governmental bureaucracies, Black and White students, pink- and white-collar workers, rural transplants, and students flocked to Tallahassee. Leon County’s population grew by more than 60 percent, from around 30,000 residents to over 51,000 by 1950.
Excerpted from Millard Fillmore Caldwell: Governing on the Wrong Side of History, by Gary R. Mormino. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. Reprinted with permission. You can learn more and purchase a copy of the book through the University Press of Florida.