Pensacola, Florida – Emma Jones was one of the greatest LGBT allies in the 1960s in northern Florida. Too bad she didn’t actually exist. When a reporter once went looking for the mysterious woman he was told, “Honey, the Emma Jones Society is you and me and every other faggot in this town, and nobody here gives a damn who Miss Emma Jones herself is.”
Emma Jones turned out to simply be a cover for a regular gay gathering on the beach in Pensacola, Florida, starting on the Fourth of July in 1964. The Advocate once described the celebrations as one of the “largest gay organized events in the country.” That’s pretty remarkable considering how conservative the Panhandle of Florida is – even now it’s still known as the “Redneck Riviera.” Back then, there was nowhere for the gays to go. The police would raid any place they would congregate. Parks and restrooms were the only place to meet. That’s the way things were until Ray and Henry Hillyer decided to change the status quo. The radical pair, in an effort to network more with local gay men who felt they had no social outlet, set up a PO box under the name Emma Jones to receive LGBT-related media such as One magazine. They picked the name because they felt it was average, boring, and wouldn’t draw much attention. The Hillyers sought to share the material mailed to the PO box with other gays in the area. But in the early 1960s they decided it was time for something bigger than a social registry and a PO box so they came up with the idea of throwing a beach bash on the Fourth of July, instead of hiding, they chose the most public and crowded place they could for the holiday celebration. And that’s how the first gathering of the “Emma Jones Society” came into being.
Over the years these gatherings continued to grow and attract more attendees so in 1970 they decided to move the crowd indoors. The event moved to Pensacola’s historic Hotel San Carlos, affectionately known as the “Gray Lady of Palafox.” For the next few years the gay men would start the day out at the beach and make their way back to the hotel’s ballroom, where there would be music, dancing, drag shows, and contests. Media outlets started picking up on the convention but the publicity caused its demise. The Emma Jones Society Convention came to end in 1974 when the last party was held. In a way the informal organization was a victim of its own success. As it became more popular, attendance grew, and as more media outlets wrote about the celebrations, the local backlash grew as well. “Emma Jones died in the streets of Pensacola on July 4th, 1974. She was 17,” The Advocate reported. Some attendees started receiving death threats, local ministers organized against the convention, and the city council started to work closely with law enforcement to find ways to curb the annual event by raiding popular bars catering to gays. (Echo Magazine – Graham Brunk at Echomag.com/emma-jones)