By L Omar Rivers*
When people think of the early African-American experience, a fact that comes to mind is how black Africans were kidnapped from their countries of origin to work as slaves in New World colonies. Indeed, millions of blacks were taken from their native lands and forced to labor as plantation and domestic workers in settlements such as Jamestown, Virginia and Charles Town, South Carolina. The roots of America’s black heritage, however, reach much deeper than this chapter in colonial and U.S. history.
Long before bondsmen were brought to the colonies, African-born blacks, both free and slave, were integral in shaping the future Americas through their participation in Spanish explorations and colony building.
Examples are numerous. Free black African Juan Garrido, a veteran of the Spanish conquests of Hispahola, Puerto Rico and Cuba, also was a member of the Spanish expedition led by Ponce de Leon that “discovered” Florida in 1513. Estevancio, the slave of a Spanish nobleman, arrived with Panfilo de Narvaez near present day St. Petersburg, Florida in 1528. Estevancio’s journeys took him across Florida and on to Arizona and Mexico. Esteban, a black gun bearer, scout, slave, and soldier, similarly arrived with and assisted de Narvaez. Juan Valiente, a black Slave who accompanied Madison Post Office Mural his master to the Americas, was a member of numerous expeditions and fought side-by- side with Spanish soldiers in Guatemala, Peru, and Chile. Likewise, blacks were members of the expeditions led by Lucas Vasquez de Allyon and Hernando de Soto.
Pinellas County African American History Museum
Blacks also contributed to Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ effort to build the fort of St. Augustine in 1565, the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in North America. Blacks used African skills and knowledge to provide a variety of important services to St. Augustine, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, cattle ranching, and military defense. As Spain continued its mission to establish a strong presence in the New World, African labor and support became even more important.
African-born blacks had numerous health advantages that were conducive to their survival. Before the explorations in the New World, European and African peoples had been in contact for centuries. As a result, Africans developed immunities to most of the common European ailments that proved deadly to Native Americans. Additionally, legend maintains that the sickle cell trait carried by some Africans protected blacks from malaria, a disease that was prevalent in the mosquito-infested American coastal lowlands. As the slave trade expanded, so did the efforts of black bondsmen to escape slavery. The first Underground Railroad in America did not lead from south to north, but north to south. As early as 1687, slaves fled bondage from English-controlled South Carolina to seek life as free men and women in Spanish Florida. Spaniards in St. Augustine took advantage of this black opposition to English slavery and offered freedom to the slaves who reached the Spanish settlement. In order to accommodate the influx of black slaves fleeing from the English and arriving at their Florida settlement, the Spanish in 1738 established the fort and town of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first free black community in North America. It became the home of more than 100 former black slaves and is located a short distance north of St. Augustine.
Throughout the following decade, the Spanish continued to strengthen Fort Mose to provide an effective defense against English army advances. Nonetheless, England eventually prevailed in the battle over control of North Florida. In 1763, the French and Indian War in the Americas ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The treaty turned the Florida colony over to the English and returned Cuba to the Spanish. The residents of Fort Mose sailed to Cuba with the Spanish, along with a few hundred remaining Indians. But, following England’s loss of its American colonies to the revolutionaries during the American Revolutionary War, Spain regained possession of Florida again in 1783. It had to relinquish La Florida to the newly created United States in 1821. Florida became a slave-holding state.
Even as an American slave territory, many blacks continued to find freedom in Florida. While Seminole Indians owned slaves, permitting them to live in separate villages in exchange for one-third of their crops, they also welcomed many escaped, black bondsmen as members of their nation. Some runaway slaves joined the Seminole tribe and made numerous contributions in the doomed effort against the U.S. military during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Men like Ben Bruno, Gopher John, and Abraham served as interpreters and war leaders for Seminole chiefs.
Following the United States victory, blacks continued to contribute to the Florida territory prior to statehood in 1845 working as guides and interpreters for the U.S. Army. By 1840 Florida’s black population was 43 percent of all its residents, a factor that helped the territory become part of the United States when it applied for statehood in 1845. On January 10, 1861, Florida became the third southern state to secede from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America. During the ensuing Civil War, the number of churches founded by and for blacks increased, especially in the Middle Florida plantation belt of Jackson, Jefferson, Madison, Gadsden and Leon counties.
An “invisible church” emerged in slave communities when bondsmen held secret religious meetings and rebelled against their masters’ Biblical interpretations that enforced subservience. Such gatherings in the woods were often called “brush meetings,” as they were held under brush arbors that offered seclusion away from white earshot. Traditional African beliefs, such as magic, conjure and witchcraft often were retained in the slaves’ religious belief system. Historian Larry E. Rivers observed in Slavery in Florida, “The slaves’ religion mixed Christianity and African tradition in a manner that helped many bond servants to cope with the realities of life and suffering. It also afforded them a type of freedom within the confines of slavery that the master could not always touch.”
Similar to the Second Seminole War, during the Civil War (1861-1865) blacks fought on both sides of Florida’s battlefields. Notably, on February 20, 1864, the Union Army, including three all-black infantry regiments, clashed with Confederate soldiers near Lake City in the Battle of Olustee, Florida’s largest Civil War engagement. The battle is interpreted annually.
The Reconstruction era (1868-1876) opened many doors for black freedmen in Florida. Radical Republicans pushed the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments which abolished slavery and protected the rights of citizenship and suffrage. Under military supervision blacks finally voted in large numbers in Florida and elected blacks to political positions. Republican governors also appointed blacks to state offices, and, despite conservative Democrats resuming control over the state legislature after 1876, the Republican controlled White House placed many blacks in federally appointed positions in Florida.
There are many examples. Jonathan C. Gibbs, appointed Secretary of State in 1868 and later Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1873, built more schools for freedmen and adopted a uniform curriculum and standard textbooks for black and white students. Additionally, Henry Harmon, a former Union soldier who settled in Gainesville, served as Alachua County voter registrar, city councilman, county clerk and auditor, State Representative, Clerk of the Florida House of Representatives, and Deputy Internal Revenue Collector. Moreover, Robert Meacham, an African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop who lived in many Florida cities, served as a County Superintendent of Public Instruction, State Senator, County Court Clerk, and Postmaster.
The post-Reconstruction era also witnessed major strides for black Floridians in education. Four historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) emerged: Edward Waters College (1866), Florida Memorial College (1879/1892), Florida A&M University (1887) and Bethune-Cookman College (1904). Civil rights leader Asa Phillip Randolph, Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes, and Congressional representatives Carrie Meek, Alcee Hastings and Corrine Brown all graduated from HBCUs in Florida.
As political and educational opportunities increased during and after Reconstruction, so did the number of black communities. Eatonville, founded in 1887, is Florida’s first all-black incorporated city and a former home of famed author, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Coconut Grove, Lemon City, and other early Bahamian settlements in southeast Florida soon were subsumed into the fast-growing cities of Miami and Palm Beach.
Rosewood, a small black town in Levy County, was destroyed by vigilante mobs in 1923. In the early 1990s, the Florida Legislature agreed to compensate the massacre’s descendants.
In many communities, a prominent black middle class emerged. Educator and business leader John Gilmore Riley, born in 1857, is a well-recorded example in Tallahassee. The house he built for his family in 1890 stands today as visible evidence of the middle-class black community that existed in the downtown Capital City from Reconstruction to the early 1950s, a period during which African Americans outnumbered whites for most of the time.
Racial segregation, however, did not disappear during these years. Instead, newly emerging communities throughout Florida began separating sections of towns in the early 20th century, secure in the knowledge that separate areas for blacks and whites had been upheld with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson. Such areas clearly enforced an image of second-class citizenship and it was known as the Jim Crow period. Segregation had replaced slavery.
Efforts to return civil rights that eroded during Jim Crow began as early as 1909 with the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).These rights would not be returned until 1954 with the Supreme Court Brown v. Topeka Board of Public Education decision that declared illegal all schools that were separate yet “unequal”. The civil rights movement that ensued and led to desegregation had many Floridian heroes as well. Some of them, like Mary McLeod Bethune and A. Philip Randolph i began the struggle in the 1920s.
The NAACP was the civil rights organization of choice for many of these men and women. In Florida, leaders like Harry T. Moore and Robert Saunders used the court system and the ballot box to challenge unfair racial treatment. Students at Florida’s black colleges helped lead direct action demonstrations to desegregate public facilities. FAMU students Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, John Dorsey Due, Wilhemina Jakes, Carrie Patterson, and Broadus Hartley initiated protests that led to victories in their communities and across the state in the crusade for social justice.
Florida’s black community has a rich history that is approaching its 500th anniversary during this century. Black people have contributed to Florida’s social, economic, and political development and the Florida Black Heritage Trail celebrates their accomplishments and sacrifices. In this publication you will find the names and faces of black pioneers and black Floridians who dedicated their lives to uplifting all people in the Sunshine State.
The public mural above is in downtown Quincy and is a public art initiative aimed at commemorating three key historic physicians while enriching the downtown Quincy experience for visitors and stakeholders in the downtown area. The mural depicts three historic African American physicians from Gadsden County. Each of these figures have left an indelible mark on their community for their efforts and contributions as doctors, healers and educators. As Keepers of the Hippocratic Oath, they have provided care and quality of life for all in need, regardless of status and resources.
It was the goal of the County Commission to visually promote the benefit of the arts throughout Gadsden County, use art as a landmark to attract visitors to public spaces and finally to educate visitors and citizens alike of the rich history of Gadsden County.
Gadsden County is in the panhandle of Florida, just west of the state capital of Tallahassee. Gadsden County is unique in Florida in that it is the state’s only county with an African American majority population. As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 46,389 people residing in the county. 56.0% were Black or African American.
*Photos were not part of the original L. Omar Rivers article – they were added by Gadsden County.
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