African presence in Florida is traced to the Spanish occupation of the state. Later, as African resistance to the system of slavery intensified, they sought refuge with the indigenous peoples of the region. As participants in early Spanish exploration of the state and directly involved in the settlement of St. Augustine, Africans were among the first non-indigenous people to settle in the United States. Their expert cultivation skills brought from Africa combined with the ability to speak several Native American languages as well as English, made them invaluable interpreters during the Seminole treaty negotiations.
Most notably recognized as the home of folklorist, anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, Eatonville is one of the nation’s oldest surviving African communities. Following the Civil War, “free” Africans settling in the area worked primarily as farm hands clearing land or helping in the construction of nearby Maitland, a white township. Two of these individuals, J.E. Clark and Allen Rickett, had come to Florida with the intention of establishing an independent black community and they found Maitland, a community more tolerant than most to their cause, to be the ideal locale for their town.
Maitland itself was founded by three Caucasian veterans of the Union army, one of whom was Captain Josiah Eaton. The townsite of was purchased from Eaton in 1887 and named in his honor. Two years after the town’s inception, the Eatonville Speaker ran the following headline: “Colored People of the United States: Solve the Great Race Problem by Securing a Home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro City Governed by Negroes.” Some historians describe Eaton as a humanitarian who sought to assist Africans in achieving “self governance”, while others say his primary motivation was to keep them out of Maitland while maintaining access to their labor.
The Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School founded in 1889, was fashioned after the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The school was endowed by E.L. Hungerford in memory of his son, a Caucasian physician who died of yellow fever he contracted while treating Africans who had been abandoned by doctors in Louisiana. The school, which continued to thrive as a private institution until 1950, had a staff of twelve teachers and provided vocational and academic training for 132 students.
In addition to Zora Neale Hurston, other notable residents of Eatonville include Hall of Fame football player, Deacon Jones and Dr. Benjamin Perry, president of Florida A&M University.
Located approximately sixty miles southwest of Gainesville, the town was established in 1847 and named for the rosy color of freshly cut cedar. By 1855 seven homesteads had been erected along a dirt road leading to the Cedar Keys. In 1861 the Florida Seaboard Airline Railway established a depot in Rosewood and shipments of cedar and citrus led to the community’s early commerce. The enormous cedar trees found in the area were ideal for manufacturing lead pencils and in the 1870s were shipped by rail to the international mills of Faber and Eagle in Cedar Key.
The town had been predominantly white until about 1890, when all the cedar in the area had been depleted and the pencil mills closed. Most white families moved out, selling or leasing their land to blacks in the community. The post office and school also closed, relocating to the site of a new cedar mill in Sumner, three miles west of Rosewood.
By 1900, the black community had become the majority population and black owned or operated businesses took advantage of the increased opportunity. M. Goins and Brothers Naval Stores prospered by distilling turpentine and rosin from the pine trees in the area. They also provided housing in a section of Rosewood that became known as “Goins Quarters.”
By 1915 Rosewood claimed a voting population of 355 African Americans. However, the population began to decline slightly the next year, when the Goins family was forced to close their business to avoid lawsuits from competing white businesses over land rights. A limited number of businesses did remain including a general store and a sugar mill. There was also second store in town owned by the Parhams, a white family.
Rosewood was a quiet town with most families traveling to the white community of Sumner for employment. The men worked at the new cedar mill or hunted and trapped furs which were shipped to companies like Montgomery Wards and many of the women worked for white families of the town. This peaceful existence was interrupted on New Year’s morning 1923, the day after the largest Ku Klux Klan rally in the history of nearby Gainesville Florida. Fannie Taylor a white woman, claimed to have been raped by a black man, however, black citizens of Rosewood disputed her accusations saying that she contrived the story to avoid the detection of a secret love affair. Jesse Hunter, a black man who had recently escaped from jail became a convenient suspect. With their courage fortified by “moon shine,” and armed with guns and the hate filled message of the previous day’s rally, Fannie’s husband and more than 200 men from Sumner and the surrounding communities set out for Rosewood. Although accounts vary as to how many people were killed, the town was obliterated in what became known as the “Massacre of Rosewood.” Every building was completely burned to the ground and many of the elderly citizens, to frail to run or hide, were shot as they fled their collapsing homes. For at least two weeks after the incident, black men were still being killed indiscriminately in Rosewood as well as in other nearby communities.
Children, who had been taken to safety in the swamps, were forced to stay half submerged in the freezing cold for days without food or water. Many of those who escaped death were assisted by John Wright and his wife, who hid many people in their store and also two train conductors who picked up women and children along the tracks and took them to safety in Gainesville.
Governor Cary Hardee of Florida offered to send in the National Guard, but Sheriff Walker of Levy County assured him that, “everything is under control.” Although the governor later called for an investigation no arrests were ever made in the Rosewood murders.
An all-white jury was convened and instructed by Judge Augustus V. Long to “make every effort to fix blame where it belonged and to see that the guilty parties were brought before justice.” The grand jury listened to testimony of twenty-five witnesses, eight of whom were African American, before reaching their decision. The foreman reported that there was insufficient evidence to make any indictments in the case. The story of what occurred at Rosewood made newspaper headlines from New York to Los Angeles but soon faded from public view. It was not until 1982 when Gary Moore, a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, began to re-earth this tragedy that the nation was reminded of this painful chapter in its history.
1n 1994 the Florida State Legislature passed a bill to compensate the families for loss of property as a a result of the state’s failure to prosecute the perpetrators. This was the first and last compensation ever received by African Americans for past racial injustices.
Located near the Florida Keys, this community was established by George Adderley a boatman skilled in sponging. He calmed the waters surface by dripping shark oil on it which allowed him to view the bay’s bottom. Adderley was born in 1870 on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. He arrived in the Keys at the age of 20 and married his Olivia in 1894. In December of 1903 he purchased thirty acres of land in an area now known as Crane Hammock, for $100 payable over three years.
The Adderleys depended largely on what they were able to grow or catch. Their kitchen was built in the Bahamian style and located in a separate building from the main house so that smoke would not congest the house. Today, the Adderley home is a historical landmark located at the Museums of Crane Point Hammock.
Fort Mose, a fortified town created for the protection of Africans fleeing slavery was founded in 1738. Under the leadership of Captain Francisco Menendez, himself of African and Spanish decent, the fort was occupied until the end of the French and Indian War of 1763. It was during this period that the state was reluctantly turned over to the British and many of the Africans and Spaniards sought asylum in Cuba.