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.
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
“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
Thirdin a series of Florida “Black” Historic Marker Destinations
By Douglas C. Lyons
SAINT AUGUSTINE — The city’s Lincolnville neighborhood should be a ‘must’ stop on every visitors’ trip to America’s oldest city. It’s a picturesque section of town, located just south of the famed historic district. The fact that it is also Saint Augustine’s historic black community gives the area its own bit of uniqueness.
Whites are moving into the community that was founded by freed slaves. Older homes are giving way to new developments. Property values are going up, and many longtime residents are moving out. It’s an all-too familiar trend.
There is still a lot to love about Lincolnville. The area’s architecture includes the city’s highest concentration of Victorian-era homes. The Lincolnville neighborhood is a picture perfect place for walking tours, something almost everyone does during their stay in Saint Augustine’s historic district.
The area also has its fair share of history, including the 1964 civil rights demonstration that made Saint Augustine a brief focal point during America’s Civil Rights Movement. There’s a lot to see and during those quiet moments along the neighborhood streets, all that history seems to come alive.
Lincolnville remains the city’s historic black community.
How long that lasts is anyone’s guess.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.
Photo Credits: Douglas C. Lyons & Doris T. Harrell
Wait! What? Gov. Rick Scott now wants the state Clemency Board to rewrite rules for restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time and repaid their debt to society. Where was the governor’s zeal before a federal judge forced his hand?
Before U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that the current state procedure was “arbitrary” and open to bias in granting clemency, Scott and the rest of the Florida Cabinet were content to let applicants for clemency wait five years before even applying, and then waiting some more before getting a hearing.
The Clemency Board only meets four times a year and faces a backlog of more than 10,000.. There are roughly 1.5 million ex-felons in Florida who are eligible to seek restoration of their voting rights.
Bottom line? The system is arbitrary and subject to potential bias.
Don’t expect a big rush to change by the governor, attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer — all Republicans who are the clemency board — to change the process. All this is posturing as the state moves to appeal the federal judge’s ruling against Florida’s clemency process.
Fortunately, voters can change the Florida Constitution this November to allow convicted felons to vote in future elections. Voters can also let at least two Clemency Board members know that they don’t appreciate the long delay in allowing ex-felons the right to vote. Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam wants to be governor. CFO Jimmy Patronis wants to be re-elected, and Rick Scott is expected to run for the U.S. Senate. If their names are on the November 6th ballot, cast your vote and make your feelings about voting rights known.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blkinfla.com.
Here’s some Florida Black History that is appropriate to Valentine’s Day. It’s a love connection of some historic significance: the marriage of Abraham Lincoln Lewis and Mary Sammis. It was a very big deal in our state’s history.
Lewis was born in 1865 and would grow up to become rich businessman in Jacksonville. He amassed a fortune in several enterprises, including the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. He purchased enough oceanfront property along a strand of Amelia Island, which become American Beach, a popular tourist destination for blacks during the days of racial segregation.
Lewis married well. At age 19, he married Mary Sammis, the great-granddaughter of the eccentric yet wealthy landowner, planter and slave trader and political activist Zephaniah Kingsley and his Senegalese wife, Anna Jai.
Lewis, according to the book, An American Beach for African Americans, brought ambition and reliability to the marriage. Mary Sammis brought a respected name and recognition, making the pair quite the power couple of their day.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.