Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Remembering Calvin Rogers (c. 1831 - Jan. 26, 1870)

This African American farmer, a former slave, first entered the historical record when he signed a petition in March 1867 addressed to Florida Bureau chief Col. John T. Sprague asking that William J. Purman be reassinged to Jackson Co. after the Bureau had tranferred Purman away from Marianna. By the following year, Rogers was serving as president of Jackson County's newly formed Republican Party. Under his leadership the county party ratified the new state constitution and issued public messages offering reconciliation with white neighbors allied with the Democratic-Conservative opposition. In the elections in the spring of 1868, Rogers became the first African American elected to public office in the history of Jackson County when he was elected Constable.

A noted "stump speaker," Rogers spoke at mass public gatherings, such as the 4th of July picnic hosted by the county's African American community in 1869. Henry Reed, a free-born African American active in public affairs during the early years of Reconstruction in Jackson Co., testified that Rogers was "a good man and as true a man as ever there was in the world." Rogers made a memorable impression on twelve-year-old T. Thomas Fortune, who, years later, memorialized Rogers in his poem "Bartow Black." Fortune recalled Rogers as "far above the average of his race in intelligence and courage."

Jackson County whites, however, viewed Rogers quite differently. They bristled at the unprecedented situation of a black man holding a law enforcement position with the authority to arrest whites. They resented Rogers's "domineering manner" and accused him of "repeated acts of oppression in his office of both white and colored." White opinion regarded him as "a bad, bold and dangerous man." The country board of commissioners tried to discourage his service as constable by imposing the onerous obligation of posting a $1,500 bond for guarantee of his performance of the official duties. By the fall of 1869, the Regulators had targetted Rogers for assassination.

The story of Calvin Rogers's role in the terrible events of the fall of 1869 are told in detail in previous posts on this blog. After being wounded at the picnic shooting in late September, Rogers was accused, on very thin evidence, of culpability in the murder of Maggie McClellan. He was hunted relentlessly until finally cornered in Marianna on this day, 140 years ago. If Rogers was responsible for the reprisal shootings on Oct 1, 1869, when intended targets were clearly James McClellan and James Coker, he showed gravely poor judgment. He may have hoped to forstall his own inevitable murder by decapitating the Regulators' leadership. Instead, recklessness merely compounded the tragedies.

Monday, January 04, 2010

January 1870: Closing the Circle

After the reimposition of order and the arrival of the troops, normal life resumed in Jackson County. The circuit court judge finally deemed it safe enough to travel to Marianna and Calvin Rogers, still in hiding, was charged with Maggie McClellan's murder. Aleck Dickens was charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact. Murder charges were also brought against Jack Myrick, who was safely far removed from Florida and justice. Judge Anderson's county criminal court charged Myrick with assault with intent to kill and resisting an officer. Billy Coker, long since disappeared, was accused of only assault and battery. Quiet was not complete, however, as evidenced by some unidentified gunman's taking pot shots at the guard posted in front of the troops' quarters and the unexplained murder of Lassiter Shadrach, an African American farm laborer, in December.

The Regulators still had one score left to settle. On January 26, 1870, Calvin Rogers was finally tracked down. "Several citizens" cornered him at the home of a black resident of Marianna. The Courier reported that Rogers "in attempting to break arrest was killed by the constable and posse." Thus, the life of Jackson County's first black law-enforcement officer ended in a vigilante lynching. No evidence was ever put forth to prove Rogers's responsibility for the murder of Maggie McClellan other than James Coker's claim that he recognized Rogers's voice calling "fire" in the darkness.

The same day that Calvin Rogers was slain, the murder that had initiated the year of terror was remembered in Tallahassee. In the Florida legislature, Senator Purman had introduced a bill calling for state financial support of Dr. Finlayson's two orphaned children. The state assembly approved the proposal and awarded John and Sallie Finlayson, sheltered by their grandparents in Mobile, a grant of three hundred dollars per year to be paid out for ten years.

This account is adapted from my forthcoming narrative history, The Jackson County War.