Along wireless receivers, the click-clack of telegraph and the cacophony of the telephone, news flashed to local express and newspaper offices across the world. It was Nov. 11, 1918. The Great War was over, peace at last. Along the routes of the Florida East Coast Railway and the Atlantic Coast Line, engineers blew train whistles, alerting Floridians to the glorious news.
The war that generals boasted would be over by Christmas 1914 claimed 40 million lives, four empires, a continent in social upheaval and any semblance of decency and innocence.
Collectively, Nov. 11, 1918, was the most deliriously happy day in the history of the Western World. The date marked the first time most residents shared an experience spontaneously and simultaneously. Modern technology now linked villages, cities, states, and nations to a distant world.
Miami had not yet celebrated its 25th birthday, but its future was being shaped by dreamers and visionaries. The Miami Herald printed eight editions as newsboys yelled “Extra! Extra!” News of peace sped by truck, rail, and steamer to Okeechobee, Key West and Havana. Thousands of residents, tourists, and servicemen congregated at Royal Palm Park where they watched airplanes perform stunts. The city’s mayor played traffic cop while a button-down chamber of commerce executive donned an Uncle Sam costume.
No city in America understood the symbolism and significance of public ceremony more than St. Augustine. For centuries the Plaza had witnessed the rituals of victory and celebration, the transfers of empires and sting of lost causes. A local reporter contrasted the long line of Model T’s with “local cowboys racing on their fleet ponies, cracking their long whips.”
Tallahasseeans built a bonfire at the corner of Adams and College. Locals stitched together a dummy of the Kaiser, placing the German inside a coffin, soon to join the funeral pyre. In Webster, so many guns blasted that “birds thought the ‘open season’ was on.”
Across Tampa Bay, pandemonium reigned. “St. Petersburg went wild, crazy, joyously mad at 3:20 o’clock this morning when the big siren whistle at the waterworks announced the signing of the armistice that ends the war,” reported the Evening Independent. In a matter of minutes, Central Avenue was “so thick on the sidewalks that it was almost impossible to walk across the stream.”
The St. Petersburg Times described Central Avenue as a “gay red way last night.” A mile-long procession snaked along the thoroughfare. A reporter observed a young boy “riding a bicycle up and down the street firing a shotgun.” A “small sized riot” led by Mayor Al Lang occurred “when the night train arrived with a Pullman car which bore the damning title of ‘Wilhelmine.’ A frantic search was made for a bucket of paint.”
“Tampa is happy!” the Tampa Tribune proclaimed, crowing, “Not since the dawn of history has a day so fraught with happiness the general world over … has such a spirit of jubilation reigned through the city.”
Citizens of Oldsmar celebrated “the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm by hanging him in effigy, then shooting him full of holes,” followed by burning his effigy alive. In Clearwater, a procession featured a resident holding aloft a live American eagle.
In the Jim Crow world of 1918, the euphoria of victory camouflaged the starkness of race relations. For a few hours on the morning of November 11th, blacks and whites seemed as one. Gainesville’s crowd “included every man, woman and child, white and black.”
In Bartow, a “large delegation of the colored population came marching down the street, waving flags and shouting for joy.” The St. Lucie County Tribune painted the scene in Fort Pierce: “Leaving the white district, the enthusiastic paraders proceeded through colored town. Here, Wilber Myles, a leader among his people, asked that they be permitted to join the procession. Permission being granted, large numbers joined the crowd and marched back to town amid the clanging of bells, the blowing of whistles and patriotic airs of the band.”
A theater without walls, the armistice allowed Floridians of all races to make noise, get drunk, shoot firearms, retiring to separate spheres at the end of the day. Sadly, post-war Florida witnessed a horrifying level of racial violence.
From the vantage point of 2018, face-to-face celebrations and unbridled optimism for the future seem sadly nostalgic and old-fashioned. The last time Florida residents celebrated in such ways was V-J Day 1945. If such events occurred today, how and where would we connect with strangers? Online? Virtually?
Gary R. Mormino is a scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.