The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

Conflicting Emotions

Melissa Petersen
IDH 4007
Fall Semester 2003
Prof.Machonis / Dr. Graham

   I want us to do better. I want us to be stewards of our lands and keepers of our brothers'. I want men and women to be peaceful, loving creatures across the board and across the world. I have hope for these things. Yet, I am angry. I am frustrated and overwhelmed by the legacy from which I have come. My ancestors are murderous, violent people who are responsible for such evils as colonialism, slavery and genocide. They ravaged not only countless ethnicities around the world but the natural environment as well. I am the daughter, the granddaughter and the great-great-great granddaughter of the "White Man". The liar, the treaty breaker, the villain; that is who brought me into this world. So what then does that make me?

   It makes me a confused and conflicted woman. My Mother has always been very open with me about my family heritage. She never hid from me the fact that my family initially made their fortune on cotton and tobacco plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. There are towns in both of these states named after my slave-owning family members. My Mother still has in her possession the slave ledgers which recount the numbers and the prices of the slaves bought and sold by our family. She has always reminded me that we need to be knowledgeable about our history, even if that knowledge is of shameful and painful things. And let me tell you, it is both of these things. I have never really been able to reconcile my own personal beliefs with the cultural heritage that was passed on to me with my DNA.

   As I have begun to delve deeper into the history, ecology and current state of the Everglades I have begun to reflect on the role that my family has played in the recent history of the Everglades. My great-great-great grandfather Chipley was the man who brought the railroad to Northern Florida. It was his line that Flager built upon and extended into Southern Florida. Countless people made their way into the southern part of this state on the path that my family began. My great-grandfather, who was a biologist, came to southern Florida as an early "pioneer". He subsequently made his fortune off a company called Shark Industries which slaughtered sharks and sold their body parts around the world. However, as my mother always says, "He never wasted one part of those sharks. He even exported the fin to be used for shark fin soup. He also discovered that sharks are a great source of vitamin A. He was a true scientist." His son, my grandfather, continued the legacy of Shark Industries well into the 1930's.

   In the late 30's my grandfather became the State Editor of the Miami Herald, a position he held until the 1960's. As I reflected upon all of this, it occurred to me that since my grandfather was also a columnist for the Herald and wrote solely about "State Issues," that he had probably written about the Everglades. So last night I pulled out one of my mother's old scrap books of my grandfather's articles to see if I could find some writings about the Everglades. The scrap book I choose was an archive of all of his articles from 1943. What I found there were not the words of a conservationist but the words of an agriculturalist. Although I was disappointed to read article after article about cutting down more trees for lumber; planting more grapefruits, oranges, pineapples, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, lettuce, cabbages, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, potatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplants, peppers, peaches, onions, green beans, green peas, and sugar cane; and clearing more land for more cattle, I learned many things that I did not know and was reminded of something that I did.

   The concept that I was reminded of is best expressed by that old cliché, "Nothing is ever 'black or white'." There are no absolutes, nothing and no one exists in a vacuum. The agricultural boom that was taking place in central and south Florida during 1943, as I discovered through the articles, was driven by the demands of a war-time economy and fear of a post-war economic depression. As we all know, after WWI the United States suffered the "Great Depression." This depression left countless Americans homeless, penniless, and starving. During WWII the wounds left from the Great Depression were still very fresh for many Americans. In addition to the memory of that depression, the memory of the devastating hurricane that ravaged northern Florida and killed an estimated 3000 people in 1928 was also still very fresh in the minds of the "transplanted 'native' white Floridians."

   These new "Native Floridians" did not see their endeavors through the lens which we see them now. They saw their actions as being vital to national survival. Many of the articles focused on how the produce from Florida was quickly becoming the primary food source for the soldiers and how the naval defense of the country depended on the lumber and limestone (used for cement hulled war ships) produced in Florida. However, I should note that war time propaganda is of a powerful and persuasive nature and it is unclear to me if these claims are actually true. That point aside, each new article expounding on the increased bushels of vegetables or head of cattle was, to the Floridian of 1943, a sign of hope for their future. In fact agriculture was so important to them that (according to one of my grandfather's articles) Sarasota extended the Christmas Vacation of the areas schools in 1943 from December through March so that the children could help harvest the celery crops.

   Little did they know that their agricultural fervor would lead to the current state of Florida ecology. Actually, I don't know if they were completely ignorant of the ramifications of their actions. But, if the title of my grandfather's August 7, 1943 column is any indication of their knowledge I would say the answer was most likely that no, they didn't know. "Everglades Seminoles Help Improve 3,000 Acres Of Land To Be Used As Cattle Grazing Ranges" is the title of that column. This particular article was the only article from that entire year that actually mentioned the Everglades. The sentiment of the article: Improve the land by draining the land and use Seminole Indians to do the labor for you! No need to pay the Seminoles much, and as a bonus you don't even have to give them housing because they live in those odd little huts. Allright grandpa!

   Needless to say there is a lot about my family and my culture that I am ashamed of. Yet, those things are the very things that compel me and inspire me to open my mouth and my front door and participate in my society. I know who my family is, where they came from, what they did and how they placed themselves in relation to the world around them. That knowledge forces me to look at myself, where I am, how I live and how I place myself in relation to the world around me. Hopefully, with this knowledge, I can leave a legacy and a heritage of conservation, kindness and compassion so that my great-great-great-grand daughter will not be ashamed of me.


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