Welcome to Florida’s Most Inaccessible Historic Site

By Douglas C. Lyons

SUMATRA — Name Florida’s most inaccessible historic site. Fort Jefferson is a worthy candidate. Located in Dry Tortugas National Park, it sits on a small island just 70 miles due west of Key West.

Still, Fort Jefferson has nothing on the Fort Gadsden Historic Site, a memorial to a black settlement and the scene of a brutal battle that left 270 men, women and children dead.

The site was originally a British fort built along the Apalachicola River during the War of 1812 to wage attacks on the American territories. After the war, the British abandoned the fort, leaving it to their allies: a group of 30 Seminole and Choctaw Indians and roughly 300 fugitive slaves.

The reputation the “Negro Fort” grew, but the existence of a black settlement inside a heavily armed fort didn’t sit well with slaveowners in nearby Georgia.

Enter Andrew Jackson, then the military commander of the U.S. Southern District. He ordered troops to travel down the Apalachicola River and destroy the outpost.

The fort had been attacked before, and its black inhabitants managed to beat back that earlier effort. Embolden by their defense, the fort’s leaders began launching raids on plantations across the U.S. border. Perhaps the successes of those skirmishes lulled the black settlers into a false security when Jackson’s troops arrived and demanded an immediate surrender.

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.

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 trees of the Apalachicola National Forest

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.

Entrance of Fort Gadsden Historic Site

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.

Tip No. 2. Call first.

Feeling defeated, I turned the car around and headed back to the state road — empty handed. Fortunately, the rest of the trip was more pleasant.

IT’S STILL WORTH THE VISIT

My mis-adventure aside, I’d make the trip again.

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.

Brick tomb marks a mass grave from the final battle at the Negro Fort.

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

Third Stop on the Florida Black Historic Marker Tour: Mizell-Johnson State Park

By Douglas C. Lyons

Colored Beach at Mizell-Johnson State Park Marker

DANIA BEACH — Once a symbol of racial stigma and separation, this iconic stretch of Florida beachfront is now the only state park to be named after African Americans. Welcome to Florida’s Mizell-Johnson State Park.

Fort Lauderdale’s one-time “colored beach” wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction. Thanks to racial segregation, the better-known public beach was off-limits to blacks. Petitions by black residents to integrate proved futile — at first. Instead, Broward County officials gave blacks their own beach just south of the city.

The beach for blacks wasn’t easily accessible. There was no road and bridge to get to it. You had to take a boat to get to and from the island, which left black beachgoers at the mercy of an inconvenient ferry service. What the beach lacked in bathrooms and other amenities, it more than made up for in mosquitoes.

Still, for the powers-that-be, the “colored beach” was far enough from the city’s more prominent “whites-only” strand along A1A and Las Olas Boulevard to keep the races separated. For black residents, a ferry ride to the desolate island between Whiskey Creek and the Atlantic Ocean would have to do.

That was then. This is now.

Walkway leading to the beach at Mizell-Johnson State Park

The Jim Crow laws are history. Public beaches are now open to everyone, and a quick drive from downtown Fort Lauderdale can bring visitors to the former John U. Lloyd State Park. The park was renamed in 2016 for two local civil-rights leaders who helped  integrate public accommodations in the area: Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson.

Located just south of Port Everglades Inlet, the park contains 310 acres of recreational diversity. The Atlantic still beckons swimmers. The shoreline is three miles long and a tranquil alternative to the more congested public beaches to the north. The only interruption to the sounds of the wind and waves is the occasional jet flying overhead from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport or the horn from a cruise ship departing Port Everglades.

The  irony is hard to miss. The one time “whites-only” beach is now a popular tourist attraction. The congestion is a mix of sand, shore and crowd control. Mizell-Johnson State Park offers a nearby and more serene alternative.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

 

 

Accessibility: Easy. From downtown Fort Lauderdale head south on Federal Highway (U.S. 1) past the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport into Dania Beach. Turn left on East Dania Beach Boulevard and follow the A1A signs to the Intercostal Waterway. Cross the bridge, follow the curve but bear right onto North Ocean Drive. At that point, follow the road into the park.

Area Attractions: The park offers far more than the beach. Its various recreational activities are amenities that patrons of the old “colored beach” could hardly imagine for themselves. There are fees involved as this is a state park.

For boaters, there is easy access to the inlet, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Whiskey Creek provides an ideal venue for observing wildlife by canoe or kayak, which can be rented at the Loggerhead Cafe at the north end of the creek. For the nature lover, the park is an ideal setting and even offers a spot to watch manatees playing near the inlet. The park also has picnic facilities for those who want to bring food and enjoy an old fashioned day at the beach.

Photo Credits: Doris T. Harrell, Linda M. Lyons and Douglas C. Lyons

 

Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Florida History

By Douglas C. Lyons

A few years back during my stint as an editorial writer covering the Florida Legislature, a state senator and I were discussing black politics in the state.

The senator, then a member of Miami-Dade County delegation, had a pretty grim assessment about black Floridians living in the Panhandle region.

“Black folk living west of Tallahassee are catching hell,” he said.

I could only nod. My experiences of Florida’s black communities primarily centered around the southern and central parts of the state. At the time, I had never been west of Gadsden County, which borders the Tallahassee area. What little I saw in that county wasn’t exactly idyllic.

Years later, as I turn the pages of the book, Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980 that long-ago conversation in the state capitol office came back in a rush. J. Michael Butler’s book is a brutal assessment of the David-vs.-Goliath struggle in Florida’s Panhandle region. It’s confrontation pitting local black leadership against the overwhelming dominance of the region’s white power structure.

In this case, though, David had no stone, no slingshot and no real help.

The story follows the work of Rev. H.K. Matthews, a local pastor in Pensacola and at the time president the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It starts at a gathering of 500 black residents at the sheriff’s department to protest the police shooting of a black teenager. Despite evidence to the contrary, a grand jury declared the incident ‘justifiable homicide.”

The protest, like the others organized to decry the marginalization of Pensacola’s black residents, had the typical singing of hymns, prayers and chants, including this one led by Matthews: “Two, four, six, eight, who  shall we incarcerate?”

The words were followed by the names of the town’s white civic leaders, including the county sheriff, Royal Untreiner. Usually, the chants would go unanswered by the police presence. This time, however, the response was swift.

Matthews was arrested and later charged with felony extortion. The case went to trial, where an all-white jury heard officers testify that Matthews had said “assassinate” instead of “incarcerate.” The jury found Matthews guilty and a judge ultimately sentenced the minister to five years hard labor.

The rest of the book tells a panful story of a black community’s attempts to overcome daunting odds to achieve some semblance of equality and justice. It’s not pretty. There is no happy ending here.

There are riots at area high schools over symbols of white supremacy. Black leaders get co-opted by the white establishment, and the few gains that do occur are undermined by entrenched local and state politicians.  While Matthews boldly boldly represents the SCLC, he gets little help from his national office, or the NAACP. The fight for civil rights in the Florida Panhandle pales in comparison to the groups’ struggles to remain relevant nationally as civil-right organizations.

To paraphrase that earlier conversation: “Black folk … are catching hell.”

The book is a must read for anyone who is serious about black and white relations in Florida and today’s ongoing struggle of race and social inequality. The book’s general conclusion best describes its overall significance.

“The lessons of the Escambia County movement transcend local, state and even regional context. The story of racial power, privilege, change and continuity is not this community’s alone, for others throughout the United States encountered similar conflicts.” 

To better understand the current racial unrest still smoldering in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., or New Orleans,  consider this read of Pensacola’s past.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Deion Sanders Knows the Power of Dreams

“If your dream ain’t bigger than you, there’s a problem with your dream.”

Deion Sanders, Major League Baseball and National Football League superstar, sports broadcaster and Florida native.

The ‘So-What?! Significance: This is certainly not the day to doubt yourself. America was founded on a hardcore belief — a dream that became a world superpower. What worked for a nation started with a dream among individuals.

Rosewood Marks the Second Stop of the ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

ROSEWOOD — Drive too fast and you’ll miss it. The name may exist on a map as a dot along State Road 24 just northwest of Cedar Key. In real life, however, it’s a stretch of two-lane highway surrounded by fields. Off to the side is the historic marker that tells the tale of death, humiliation and restoration.

In the 1920s,  Rosewood was a small black settlement in Levy County. Many of the residents built and owned their homes, and the community contained several businesses, churches and a Masonic Lodge. Life was good. Well, as good as any poor group of residents who endured the post-slavery mores of white southern society in the early 20th century.

On January 1, 1923, the Rosewood community came to an end. A white woman in nearby Sumner accused a black man of rape. What followed next was the gathering of an angry mob of white men that descended on Rosewood. They drove its residents into the nearby woods, burned the community and killed five black residents in the process. Those blacks who survived took a vow of silence and never returned. The shame of the devastation remained for decades.

If this story is beginning to sound familiar, you’re probably old enough to remember the movie. Rosewood hit the big screen in 1997, starring Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Esther Rolle and Jon Voight. (For all you Guardians of the Galaxy and Walking Dead fans, the actor Michael Rooker played Sheriff Walker in Rosewood.)  The film pretty much adhered to the tragic events that resulted in the complete destruction of Rosewood.

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

Entering Rosewood

In 1994, several survivors of the Rosewood families filed a claims bill in the Florida Legislature, and ultimately a Special Master appointed by the Florida Speaker of the House ruled that the state had a “moral obligation” to compensate the survivors for mental anguish, property loss and the violation of their constitutional rights. On May 4, 1994, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a $2.1 million compensation bill, which gave nine survivors $150,000 each and established a college scholarship and a separate fund to compensate descendants who could prove property loss.

The Historic Marker was dedicated by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004.

The next destination on our Florida Black Historic Marker Tour tells a another remarkable story of state history. Check back to see where we end up next.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

Accessibility: This trip takes planning. Rosewood, Fla. is roughly an hour’s drive out of Gainesville and amounts to an eye-blink along State Road 24. Take SR 24 south from Gainesville for 49 miles before reaching Rosewood.

Area Attractions: Make a day trip out of the Rosewood visit and drive to the end of SR 24 into Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico. Cedar Key is Florida’s second oldest city. It’s a fishing, and artist village that moves at a slow pace befitting a small coastal community. Fewer than 1,000 residents live there permanently, and the main drag runs less than four blocks.

You won’t find any fast food establishments, Starbucks or a Walmart Superstore. Think boating tours, fishing charters, a museum, a wildlife refugee and some unique bars, galleries and restaurants. Hotel lodging is available, but may be hard to find on peak holidays and during the height of tourist season.

Photo Credits: Doris T. Harrell, State Library & Archives of Florida and Moni3@ English Wikipedia.

Howard Thurman Learns Why the Sun Never Sets on the British Empire

 

“At dinner one night, at a large university center, there was a discussion of colonialism and what it had brought by way of blessings to the country. A very beautiful young Indian woman, an instructor at a nearby college, whispered to me, ‘Dr. Thurman, do you know why the sun never sets on the British Empire?’ 

‘No,’ I replied.

‘I will tell you,’ she said. ‘God cannot trust the Englishman in the dark.’

Source: With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman Harcourt Brace & Company, 1979 p. 124

The ‘So-What’?! Significance: Aside from the astute observation about conquerors in general, I just liked the humor of the anecdote,  and I’m glad Dr. Thurman used it in his autobiography.

James Weldon Johnson Knew the Power of Being Young, Gifted and Black

“You are young, gifted and Black. We must begin to tell our young. There’s a world waiting for you. Yours is the quest that’s just begun.”

James Weldon Johnson, author, civil rights, activist, composer, diplomat, educator and Florida native.

The ‘So-What?!’ Significance: The words resonate. They did when James Weldon Johnson first uttered them. They did when Nina Simone and poet Weldon Irvine recorded those same words in the late 1960s in the hit song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and the words should still have meaning today.

Florida’s Summer of Black Political Enthusiasm

“An awakening black interest in registration, voting and politics poured into this already complicated milieu in the summer of 1867. This was true in Alachua County as elsewhere in Florida, Josiah Walls soon found himself a new and rewarding career. In Alachua County, black registrants far exceeded whites, a result more of the conservative boycott than of disenfranchisement.”

Source: Josiah Walls: Florida’s Black Congressman of Reconstruction by Peter D. Klingman; University Press of Florida, 1976, p. 13

The ‘So-What?!’ Significance: Black voter enthusiasm propelled Josiah Walls into Congress as Florida’s first black member of the U.S. House. Black voter enthusiasm re-surfaced more recently in 2008 and 2012 with the success of President Barack Obama’s election and subsequent re-election. If blacks want to see continued progress, they had better re-kindle that enthusiasm at the polls.

A. Phillip Randolph’s Chicken vs. Egg Concern of Freedom

 

“Negroes must be free in order to be equal, and they must be equal in order to be free… Men cannot win freedom unless they win equality. They cannot win equality unless they win freedom.”

A. Phillip Randolph, civil rights activist, labor union  leader and Florida native.

The ‘So-What?!’ Significance: Today, black people are “free,” but are they seen as equals in the eyes of American society? Looks like it’s still a work in progress.

Harry T. Moore’s ‘Plan B’ Lifted the Florida NAACP and Put the Moore’s in the History Books

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

“On May 27, 1946, the Budget Committee of the Florida NAACP mailed a letter to every important African American leader in Florida: ministers, educators, NAACP branch presidents and heads of businesses and fraternal orders. “It is common knowledge,” it began “that the steady growth [of the Florida NAACP] has been due largely to the energetic leadership of Mr. Harry T. Moore… Mr. Moore has agreed to devote his full time to this important work.”

Harry T. Moore

Harry T. Moore had just lost his job as school principal. To make matters worse, his wife, Henriette, also received word that her teaching contract would not be renewed. The terminations came as the family was set to send their second daughter to join her older sister as a student at Bethune Cookman College.

The official “blacklisting” came after years of volunteer work with the NAACP Florida State Conference, an organization Moore founded and formed into an effective vehicle of black activism. Faced with few options to renew his teaching career or support his family, Moore decided to make a bold move — forward.

Source: Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr by Ben Green 1999 The University of Florida Press pages 62 and 63

The ‘So-What?!’ Significance: The risks that come with taking a stand haven’t really changed over the years. The outspoken Harry T. Moore had a Plan B when white school administrators stripped him and his wife of their teaching jobs. Having options remains key for survival today as it was in Moore’s time.