A year ago today, Florida lawmakers issued a formal apology to the descendants of The Groveland Boys, four young black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. The arrests, forced confessions, their abusive treatment as prisoners — three died at the hands of the police — and subsequent trial garnered national attention and brought shame to Lake County, Florida, particularly its then-sheriff Willis V. McCall. As the saying goes, “Better late …”
The formal apology is a good thing for the state of Florida. It helps ease the wounds of a racist past and also recognizes a history that often passes unnoticed.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.
“While [Thurgood] Marshall and [Franklin] Williams attempted to put together a preliminary legal strategy, the New York office of the NAACP advised Harry T. Moore in Florida that the Legal Defense Fund would vigorously defend the Groveland Boys and requested that Moore rouse local public support for the case. Moore immediately sprang into action. He had already sent telegrams to [Florida] Gov. Fuller Warren on July 20 and July 22 calling for punishment of the parties responsible for the rioting in Groveland, and now, in a letter to the governor on July 30, he demanded a special investigation and a special session of the grand jury “to indict the guilty mobsters.”
Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. The world lost a true leader, a leader and an American icon.
Let us not forget King’s time in Florida. In 1964, he organized a protest in America’s oldest city — St. Augustine — during the city’s celebration of its 400 anniversary. What they found, as described in the book, To the Mountaintop by W. Roger Witherspoon, was a battle zone.
“St. Augustine was worse than Mississippi in many ways,” said Rev. C.T. Vivian, a King lieutenant. “They used guns, chains, lead pipes — the whole works — on black people there.”
A series of night marches by blacks to the city’s Slave Market in downtown St. Augustine ended in violence. Not only did the police decline to help the marchers, many of them participated in the attacks.
“The police force and the Klan were the same thing,” Vivian said. “Guys who would be beating you in the morning, you would see over at the jail later as deputies.”
Fortunately, the campaign had a happier ending. A federal judge ultimately ruled in favor of the black demonstrators, and the protest ultimately helped move the 1964 Civil Rights Act closer to passage. Today, tourists can celebrate the efforts of the civil rights foot soldiers at a memorial in the city’s famed historic district.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Florida Memory State Libraries and Archives of Florida
Think you know something about black history in Florida. Well, take this quiz, and let’s see what you’ve got under the cap. It’s only 10 questions, and the chance to learn more.
— Douglas C. Lyons, founder of www.blackinfla.com.
1.) Name the first black man to step foot on Florida soil?
a.) Juan Carolos
b.) Juan Garrido
c.) Juan de la Santadimingo
d.) Juan Ortega
2.) What was an early destination on the Underground Railroad?
a.) Fort Mose
b.) Fort Myers
c.) Key West
d.) Negro Fort
3.) Zora Neale Hurston lied about her age to get an education?
4.) Name the Floridian who would earn the nickname ‘The Admiral.’
a.) Guion Buford
b.) David “Chappie” James
c.) James Perry
d.) David Robinson
5.) What black Oscar winner was born in Florida?
a.) Cuba Gooding Jr.
b.) Hattie McDaniel
c.) Butterfly McQueen
d.) Sidney Poitier
6.) Name the city that boasts Florida’s first black man and woman to state Legislature in the modern era.
b.) Key West
7.) Who was called the ‘first martyr’ of the Civil Rights Movement?
a.) Medgar Evers
b.) Martin Luther King
c.) Harry T. Moore
d.) Juliette Hampton Morgan
8.) What was the name of the school that would become Bethune Cookman University?
a.) Bethune Cookman College
b.) Cookman Institute
c.) Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls
d.) Daytona Normal & Industrial Institute
9.) Who are the Mascogos?
a.) Front line of the 1984 Florida State University football team
b.) Descendants of the Black Seminoles
c.) Name of inhabitants of the Negro Fort
d.) Nickname for black soldiers in the Battle of Olustee
10.) In what Florida city did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wage a campaign against states rights?
c.) St. Augustine
1.) B. — Juan Garrido, a conquistador born in Africa, is the first black man to set foot in Florida and the New World in 1513 when and an expedition that included Juan Ponce de Leon first set foot on what would be the Sunshine State.
2.) A. — Fort Mose, just outside of St. Augustine, became a destination for runaway slaves from the American colonies when Florida was Spanish territory.
3.) A. — True. Zora dropped 10 years off her age as a young woman in Baltimore to qualify for a scholarship and a chance to pay for a college education.
4.) D. — David Robinson, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and star in the National Basketball Association with the San Antonio Spurs, was born in Key West.
5.) D. — Sidney Poitier who won an Oscar for his role in Lillies of the Field, was born in Miami.
6.) C. — Miami residents elected Joe Lang Kershaw in 1968 and Gwen Sawyer Cherry two years later in 1970.
7.) C — If there were a title of “First Civil Rights Movement Martyr,” it would belong to Harry T. Moore, a schoolteacher who founded the NAACP Florida State Conference and among other things organized campaigns to register black voters and raise black teacher salaries during the 1940s.
8.) C. — In 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune opened the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Girls. Subsequent growth and mergers would lead to university status and the 2007 re-naming, Bethune Cookman University.
9.) B — These Seminole Indians descendants live in Mexico and remain in close contact with Black Seminoles in Texas.
10.) C — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched a campaign in St. Augustine to draw attention to opponents of civil rights.
So, how did you do? If you scored:
8 to 10 — You know your stuff! Congratulations.
6 to 8 — You obviously cracked a book or two.
4 to 6 — Need more black history in Florida schools.
0 to 3 — ‘Flori-duh!’ C’mon. You can do better.
To learn more history, check out www.blackinfla.com.
“As a youth Chappie James was told repeatedly, at home and in school, that he would succeed if he were able to drive whites of their negative stereotypes of blacks. He also learned that it was important that he demonstrate personal reliability in supporting the society’s paramount values, like patriotism. Young James also was taught to have confidence in authority and to believe that if he passed society’s tests by developing personal qualifications he would be generously rewarded.”
Mary McLeod Bethune made this day a red-letter date in American history for black women. On December 5, 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) as an “organization of organizations” to represent the concerns of Black women, here in America and abroad.
The NCNW gave black women the chance to realize their aspirations for social justice and human rights as the organization took on job discrimination, barriers to voting rights and fought for anti-lynching laws. Today, the NCNW consists of roughly 36 national African American women’s organizations and more than 230 community and campus based sections. It’s mission remains to advocate, empower and lead nearly three million women , their families and communities.
Bethune, of course, was a noted educator, founder of Bethune Cookman College, and perhaps the most influential black woman of her time. The NCNW is just one of the many accomplishments that are part of Bethune’s rich legacy.
“As racists rewrote Florida’s history as well as its constitution, it was forgotten how well black people in Florida had taken to electoral politics. According to Carter Brown’s study, Florida’s Black Public Officials 1867-1924, nearly 1,000 black people, the great majority of them Florida-born ex-slaves, held office following the Civil War. By profession, they ranged from farmers and laborers to craftsmen and preachers.”
SUMATRA — Florida’s “Negro Fort” isn’t likely to jump off the pages of any slick travel brochure. For a state that prides itself on tourism, this historic landmark is pretty much a forgotten, relic, lost to both isolation and general ignorance.
Today, the remains of the old ‘Negro Fort’ can be found in the Fort Gadsden Historical Site, a memorial to a black settlement and a dark piece of United States history. The fort was once home to a community of roughly 300 runaway slaves and 30 Seminole and Choctaw Indians who lived in an uneasy peace with their slaveholding neighbors to the north.
The white inhabitants of Georgia, the Carolinas and other pars of the South didn’t tolerate a free black community nestled in an abandoned British fort stocked with ammunition and weapons. Enter Andrew Jackson, then the military commander of the U.S. Southern District. He ordered troops to travel down the Apalachicola River into the Spanish territory and destroy the outpost.
Facing attack, the black inhabitants feared leaving the fort would result in being forced back into slavery. They vowed instead to fight to the death. The battle began on July 27, 1816, but it didn’t last long. Although the occupants were well armed, they weren’t very good at firing cannons. While the shots from the fort fell harmlessly into the river, a red-hot cannonball from the gunboat hit the powder magazine containing the fort’s ammunition. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away in Pensacola, and it pretty much killed all of the fort’s inhabitants.
The fort was rebuilt in 1818 and renamed after Lt. James Gadsden who led the efforts to restore it. Fort Gadsden saw use during the Second Seminole War and the Civil War, until 1863 when a malaria outbreak forced Confederate troops to abandon the fort. It didn’t take long before the neglected outpost became a memory, a piece of Florida’s past now lost to history and its inconspicuous location. Today, the park sits in a remote section of the Florida Panhandle as arguably the state’s most inaccessible historic site.
LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION
The site sits in the middle of nowhere. It’s located in the Apalachicola National Forest near Sumatra, Florida, just south of the Franklin-Liberty county line. ‘Isolated’ is too kind of a description. Signs of civilization are far and few between, and those signs that exist around the site might scare the casual observer. I had wanted to visit the park and get a picture of the Fort Gadsden historic marker for the Florida Black Historic Marker Tour series. Unfortunately, I had put as much thought into the trip to the “Negro Fort” as if I was picking up milk from the neighborhood grocery store. My bad.
It was a beautiful day for a road trip. My spirits were high, the music was blasting and the scenery was what you’d expect from an off-the-beaten path locale. It was supposed to be an uneventful drive along the back roads — from Perry through the woods and eventually along Florida’s Coastal Highway into Panama City Beach.
My plan was simple enough. Stop by the fort and snap a few pictures for the blog. I had an itinerary and a schedule, and I was making good time once I turned south onto State Road 65. At the point, head to Sumatra, and I’m there. At least those were the directions given to me by the navigator — my cellphone’s GPS.
Tip No. 1. Never rely on GPS for finding a Florida historic marker in an isolated area — especially when the phone dies and reads: “No Signal.” GPS does wonders in the city or the suburbs. Not so much in the middle of a national forest. Thank goodness for that Liberty County sheriff’s deputy who clocked me doing 82 mph in a 60-mph zone. She let me off with a warning and told me that I had to drive farther south into neighboring Franklin County to get to the park.
I’m glad I listened to that sheriff’s deputy and drove a little closer to the speed limit. If I hadn’t, I would have blown past the small brown sign marking the entrance to the park.
The turn off the state highway took my wife and me onto a dirt road that seemed to run forever. There were no signs of civilization, much less signs for a park. Just the forest as far as the eye could see. Twenty minutes later, I began to worry.
A mile into our trek along the dirt road, we reached an intersection. There still was no sign of the park, but there was a sign. Unfortunately, my wife saw it first: “No discharging of firearms within 500 feet of residences.”
There were no residences in sight, only a smaller dirt road that disappeared among the pine trees. My wife began to think — out loud. She wondered if this trip so deep in the woods for a picture at a historic marker was really worth it.
Finally, after another mile and what seemed like hours later, a sign for the park appeared. “Fort Gadsden Park One Mile,” and it had an arrow that directed us to a one-lane dirt road that only seemed to appreciate four-wheel drive vehicles.
My wife began thinking out loud, again. This time the concern centered on the possibility of getting a flat tire in the boonies with cellphones that read “No Service.” It didn’t help matters that we crossed another dirt road with the accompanying warning sign about discharging firearms near unseen residences.
I remained determined and pressed on.
A mile of slow bumpy driving took us to the site, only to find its low-slung gate blocking the road. The park was closed.
On the other side of the gate is a tranquil forest, where a visitor can find the remains of the fort, a picnic area, walking trails and a gravesite containing the bodies of the victims of the Negro Fort attack and the soldiers stationed at the re-built fort that was later abandoned after outbursts of malaria.
IT’S STILL WORTH THE VISIT
The isolation aside, the trip for any historic buff is well worth it. The area became a state park during the 1960s when the Florida
Board of Parks & Historic Memorials
established Fort Gadsden State Historic Site. Unfortunately, state budget cuts forced the board to relinquish control of the park.
The U.S. Forest Service maintains the park, and there’s a number for the Ranger District Office: 850 643-2282. I was fortunate to reach an individual there who explained how the park operates. (He also told me not to worry about the “firearm” warnings. The signs are up for the hunters during hunting season.)
The park, he said, is accessible in the daytime. The gate, however, is typically closed to vehicles, unless a group reserves its use. There’s no problem stepping over the gate to enter the fort. The site isn’t staffed, and the park most likely will remain in this state for the foreseeable future.
For those visitors who step over or walk around the gate, the park offers scenic river views, a picnic area, interpretive kiosks and signs, short hiking trails, scant remains of the fort and solitude. There are no crowds. No noise. Just the quiet of the forest and the stillness one might find in a cemetery. The site is home to a mass grave containing the victims of the Negro Fort explosion, along with 100 soldiers who were stationed and died at the isolated fort.
The Fort Gadsden Historic Site has historic significance. The Negro Fort, like other early black settlements in Florida, including Fort Mose in St. Augustine, became havens for runaway slaves who sought freedom by fleeing south.
Unfortunately, many people today won’t make the trip to Fort Gadsden. Many people simply don’t know anything about the fort and those who do may be turned off by the park’s remote location. Both are the ingredients for an unfairly unappreciated historic site.
Douglas C. Lyons is founder of www.blackinfla.com. He’s determined to return to the Fort Gadsden Historic Site, if he can convince his wife to accompany him.
Accessibility: What part of “in the middle of nowhere” did you not understand? The Fort Gadsden Historic Site is in a remote location that is literally in the woods. If you go, be sure your car is in tip-top shape and hope that your cellphone carrier maintains a strong signal. The Apalachicola National Forest is no place for mishaps.
Area Activities: The national forest has plenty of great-outdoor activities. The camping, hiking and the fishing are best during the spring. Hunting season varies but typically includes the Thanksgiving holiday and runs through the months of December and January.
Apalachicola is the popular destination for many residents living in the Tallahassee area. For the motorist seeking a new wrinkle to that day trip or weekend getaway to the Apalachicola Bay, I’d suggest taking the longer route to the Gulf coast by adding a stop at the Fort Gadsden Historic Site.
Take State Road 366 (West Pensacola Street) west out of Tallahassee. It will become SR 20, which you’ll take to Horsford, Fla. Once there, turn left onto SR 65. Head south. You’ll pass through Sumatra and, once you enter Franklin County, look for the brown “Fort Gadsden” park sign. Take the dirt road for about two miles where you’ll see another sign directing you to the park itself.
From the site, take a right turn off the dirt road onto SR 65 and head south until it dead-ends onto US 319. Turn right and go west to Apalachicola. This route adds an hour to the more direct and well-traveled U.S. 319 route between Tallahassee and Apalachicola. The longer route is scenic, but it runs through long stretches of isolated areas of the Apalachicola National Forest, particularly along SR 65.
Photo Credit: Ebyabe, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Robert Drenning/Bob &Sharon’s Travel Adventures Blog, Nate Steiner
“By the 1850s, black people in Florida had to belong to someone or have a white benefactor to vouch or their integrity and obedience. Key West passed an ordinance prohibiting all blacks — slave or free — from walking the streets after dark. The discrimination against free blacks in Key West became so oppressive that many left, as did their counterparts in Pensacola and St. Augustine. Yet, at the same time planters allowed their skilled slaves — the blacksmith and the carpenters — to hire themselves out to other planters and businessmen, even in distant cities. The white owner kept 70 percent or more of the wages.”
“No less a friend of ‘the Negro’ than [Florida] Gov. Farris Bryant, LeRoy Collins’ successor and an unapologetic segregationist, conceded that the state had failed black Americans, especially when comparing black people’s experience to the sustained welcome granted Cubans.
‘I think the Negro people in Miami and surrounding areas who were being booted out of their hotel and service jobs by Cubans really conducted themselves very well,’ Bryant argued. ‘I think under similar circumstances they might have been forgiven for a pretty violent reaction.'”
Sources:A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida by N.D.B. Connolly, The University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 221; and “Unwelcome Guests,” Wall Street Journal, May 6, 1963; and Farris Bryant interview by Joe R. Frantz, March 5, 1971, 11, Civil Rights during the Johnson Administration, 1963-69, Part 3 — Oral Histories, Proquest Twentieth Century Black Freedom Struggles