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Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida Paperback – March 8, 2012
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About the Author
Billy Townsend was an award-winning reporter and editor for several Florida newspapers, including the Tampa Tribune and Lakeland Ledger. He began his career with the Palatka Daily News. Townsend is a fourth-generation son of Palatka. His great grandfather, Judge Vertrees Walton, was a key figure in the historic 1920s struggle against the Klan and Protestant vigilantism. Townsend knows intimately many of the hallowed spaces where Florida’s Age of Barbarity reached its climax. Today Townsend lives in Lakeland, on Florida’s I-4 Corridor, with his wife and three children. He writes for professional services firm PwC and provides cultural and historical commentary for LakelandLocal, the city’s volunteer alternative press.
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Unfortunately, academic historians will probably disregard, if not outright pooh-pooh, it. They inevitably will point to Townsend's device of re-creating dialogue from scanty evidence as unprofessional, more worthy of fiction than fact. They will undoubtedly ridicule Townsend's use of the first person to describe his hometown and in many cases, his own forebears. Some will make light of Townsend's modern-day critique of the Klan and the passive reluctance of whites to stand up to it as judging the past by contemporary standards.
I suspect that none of this will bother Townsend. I would venture to guess that he wrote this book not for a handful for academics, but for the people he grew up with in Palatka, those who've gotten to know him as a journalist and a Lakelander, and all Floridians who hunger to know about their past. Call it a popular local history with national ramifications, deeply researched and even more deeply felt. Reading this, you get into Townsend's skin, and it becomes your own.
The "Age of Barbarity" is grounded in thorough research. With the inside knowledge of a local with deep roots in the area, Townsend adeptly guides his reader through many intertwined plot lines involving characters with complex motivations. Several major figures are his family members. But instead of pretending omniscience, Townsend has the courage to confront the reader with the challenge facing anyone investigating the past: the gaps in information and the biases of those who created the surviving records. This honesty about the limits of primary sources is refreshing. Townsend turns a potential problem into one of the central strengths of the book as he opines on the credibility of the sources and enlists the reader as a co-investigator in assessing the evidence.
Although he is closely connected to the community, Townsend does not hesitate to take a stand. He champions forgotten heroes and names villains who long ago escaped justice. Townsend must also be complimented on his placement of the narrative in the wider context of the United States, emphasizing how the barbarity in central Florida tied into trends (red summer of 1919, race riots, the Great Migration, prohibition, the rise of the Klan) that wrecked havoc across the nation. The "Age of Barbarity is very worthwhile for the lessons it teaches about America and for imparting an important and exciting story.