In 1940, as Florida struggled to emerge from the Great Depression and as the dark clouds of war appeared on the horizon, it remained little more than an intriguing footnote in the history of the United States. While it was the place of the oldest European settlement in St. Augustine in 1565 and the oldest free black community at Ft. Mose, just north of the Ancient City, in 1738, few Americans were aware of either. Most looked on Florida as a backward place and as a Deep South state in which race defined relations between the white and black populations. The Hispanic population in the state, which was negligible prior to 1940, represented only 6.6% of the state’s population as recently as 1970.
World War II brought dramatic change to the state, as more than 2 million people—a number larger than the entire population of 1.9 million—located at training bases throughout the state to prepare for war. The war introduced Americans to Florida, most for the first time, and it awakened them to the state’s possibilities. Soldiers, especially those in training on the southeast coast and in the Panhandle, wrote to family and friends that Florida was the most beautiful place they had ever seen, and they hoped to have the opportunity to settle there after the war.
Many did have that opportunity, and they migrated in significant numbers in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, pushing the state past all its Deep South neighbors in total population by 1960. At the same time, a socialist revolution in Cuba in the 1950s that turned communist, ignited a dramatic influx of Cuban immigrants into Florida in 1959. Read More