If you’re like most Pensacolians, you probably call the bridge between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze the “Pensacola Bay Bridge” or the “Three-Mile Bridge” — but it’s got an official name: The Senator Philip D. Beall, Sr. Memorial Bridge.
So who was Philip Beall?
Philip Dane Beall, Sr. was a Pensacola attorney who was elected to the Florida Senate in 1934 and served as a state senator and briefly as the president of the state senate until he died in office in 1943. The state legislature named the current bridge in Beall’s honor in 1962.
A review of historical records shows that Beall was a relatively unremarkable and averagely-accomplished senator. He passed some laws and got some money for Pensacola. Obituaries in the Pensacola Journal, however, didn’t cite any particularly noteworthy legislative achievements — only that he was “colorful” and “a man full of good humor.”
Records do show, however, that Beall was a white supremacist who tried to use his power to deny black citizens their right to vote.
In 1935, Beall introduced a bill to bar blacks from voting in Democratic primary elections in several Florida cities including Pensacola. While Republicans dominate Southern politics today, it was the then-all-white Democratic Party which dominated the politics of the Jim Crow South, and Democrats worried that white Republicans would use black voters to take control of local governments.
An editorial in the Pensacola Journal applauded Beall’s effort:
Pensacola is a city of white folks. Negroes have their place. A great majority of them are good citizens. But, when we are selecting men who are to govern us, we do not want any balance of power in the hands of the colored people. Nor do we believe they want it.Pensacola Journal, April 27, 1935.
Pensacola Democrats should wire Senator Beall expressing their appreciation of his measure and encouraging him and other members of the Escambia County delegation to expedite action on it.
Another editorial confirmed that Beall’s effort was “not unusual” and was indeed part of a larger effort across the Jim Crow South to preserve white supremacy by excluding blacks from the political process.
Beall’s “white primary” bill was quickly passed in the Florida Senate on May 3 and was signed by Gov. David Sholtz on May 9.
Some argue that we cannot hold figures of the past to the standards of today. Perhaps. The fact that Senator Beall was a white supremacist doesn’t somehow discredit his other accomplishments; but neither do those accomplishments excuse his white supremacist views.
The bridge named in Beall’s honor — now nearly 60 years old — is being replaced, and unless local legislators take action, the Beall name will automatically be applied to the new bridge, as well. Is Beall’s racist legacy really what we want to honor with the largest public works project in Northwest Florida’s history?
Fortunately, a group of citizens has offered a different choice: name the bridge for U.S. Air Force General Daniel “Chappie” James, a Pensacola native who joined the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, flew a total of 179 combat missions in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and who went on to become our nation’s first black four-star general.
I think that’s a fantastic idea.