by Tim Gilmore, 8/3/2019 and 6/17/2012
Every Southern town once had its municipal whipping post, where slaves and free blacks were publicly punished. Does it matter to this story that Gregg Allman sang, in 1969, “Sometimes I feel, sometimes I feel / Like I been tied to whippin’ post,” since Southern hippies sang the blues like they were entitled to eternal freedom and youth? He wrote the song in the Gray House on Riverside Avenue, upstairs after midnight, a century after the Civil War. So I ask T. Frederick Davis.
Thomas Frederick Davis, the author of History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513 to 1924 says those who wonder where Jacksonville’s whipping post stood are deluded. It’s 1925; Davis says slavery wasn’t so bad: some slaveholders mistreated their slaves like some parents ill-treat their children, but no responsible citizen would do away with child rearing.
On page 307, Davis writes, “The town had no regular whipping-post, where the slave was beaten into unconsciousness and left with his head hanging upon his chest to be viewed by the passing residents. All that sort of thing is fiction.” Slaves were simply property, he adds, so injuring a slave could never be the purpose of punishing him. “That there were cruel masters there is no doubt, but they were no more representative of the slaveholding Southerner than the cruel parent is of the American people today.”
It makes you doubt T. Frederick Davis ever read Frederick Douglass, or if so, whether Davis thought Douglass just needed a little extra punishment.
It also makes you wonder just where the whipping post stood.
Then, seven years into my wondering, along comes Jennifer Grey, librarian at Florida State College at Jacksonville and archivist extraordinaire. Jenn’s read this city forward and backward and inside-out. There was, she says, that earlier version of Davis’s book, the one called History of Early Jacksonville, Florida, published in 1911, in which he discusses the efficacy of the whipping post.
Between 1925 and 1911, the “Lost Cause movement” full develops. It seeks to reinvent the Civil War as a chivalrous response to Northern tyranny that had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery. Yes, the Confederate leaders of every Southern state said otherwise. Yes, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” But in the years between Davis’s two versions of the history, the Ku Klux Klan had rebirthed itself at Stone Mountain, Georgia, as self-righteous knights fighting for the imagined honor of white purity and innocence.
Rub the varnish off Davis’s 1925 “Lost Cause” dismissal of the whipping post and you’ll get Davis in 1911, saying: “As punishment for those negroes who were convicted of serious offenses, the whipping post was now and then resorted to with good effect. At rare intervals, the Pillory and Stocks was successfully used for white thieves, and no offender thus punished was ever known to stay in this community afterward.”
In 1888, newspapers reported “a half dozen attorneys appeared and argued against the legality of the whipping post” for former slaves now considered “vagrant.” It was easy, too easy, to apply the vagrancy laws. Wherever they didn’t want you, you were “vagrant.” Your presence, by itself, posed offense. They could lock you up, they could whip you, make you think you were still a slave.
In a special “Jacksonville Items” section to The Palatka Daily News, the question of “the Constitutionality of the Whipping Post” told of “about 30 tramps” who “pleaded guilty to vagrancy.” The “half dozen attorneys” who appeared together in Jacksonville courtrooms “argued against the legality of the whipping post for tramps.” Their apparently radical defense claimed the law “was repealed” in 1868, when the 14th Amendment made former slaves citizens and granted them “equal protection under the laws.”
Which brings me from Davis back to Douglass, where the abolitionist and former slave writes in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: “I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom [my master] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”