Welcome to Florida’s Most Inaccessible Historic Site

By Douglas C. Lyons

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 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.

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.

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

For Blacks, the Florida Territory Becomes More Hell than Paradise

 

“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.”

Source: Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida  By Mark Darr; The University Press of Florida, 1998 p. 296

 

 

Cuban Migration Overwhelms Blacks in South Florida

“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

Florida’s Grown Folks Black History Tour Honors Zora Neal Hurston

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

SAINT AUGUSTINE — The legendary Zora Neale Hurston and the town of Eatonville, are almost inseparable. Eatonville is  one of the nation’s oldest all-black townships and the literary, if not spiritual, home of Ms. Hurston.

But, you won’t find a state historic marker erected in Ms.Hurston’s honor in the town that freedom built. For that, you have to travel to a far older quaint, historic community — St. Augustine, Fla.

There, at the corner of King and McLaughlin Streets just over the city line, sits a weathered two story Vernacular construction house, one of Florida’s few surviving structures that is associated with the famed author’s life.

Zora Neale Hurston once lived here.

In 1942, Ms. Hurston taught literature at the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, a small “Negro” college that later was relocated to Miami. The name changed, too. It’s now Florida Memorial College.

According to the excellent biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, Ms. Hurston took the teaching job as summer employment in order to “keep on eating.”

Site where Zora Neale Hurston wrote her autobiography Dust on the Road.

Ms. Hurston’s time in St. Augustine was well spent. She taught, lived in modest comfort in the then-on-campus building, and she completed her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

Making tracks is pretty much what we’ve done on this initial Florida Black Historic Marker Tour. We’ve trekked across the Sunshine State from Delray Beach to Rosewood,  back to Fort Lauderdale and finally to St. Augustine. There is one more stop, a bit of a disappointment for me, but an adventure nevertheless.

Our last stop can only be described as the eerie remains of a brutal war involving an early black settlement located in what may now be Florida’s most inaccessible historic site.

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

Accessibility: Easy. From I-95, head east into St. Augustine on SR 16, which is Charles Usinas Memorial Highway. Take it to North Ponce de Leon Boulevard (SR 5) and turn right. Take North Ponce de Leon Boulevard to West King Street. The marker is about two miles away at 791 W. King St.

Area Attractions: The marker is located in a residential community. So there’s not much to see in the area. The best bet is to hop back in your car and head east on King Street into St. Augustine for sightseeing and entertainment.

Castillo de San Marcos is the big tourist attraction in the city historic district. Take King Street from the marker to Avenida Menedez (A1A). Turn left and continue north for less than a mile. You’re also close to the bridge to St. Augustine Beach.

Fort Mose Historic State Park is the first of two black historical attractions that should be on anyone’s itinerary when visiting St. Augustine. The waterfront site contains plenty of park amenities and an interactive museum that tells the complete story of the first legally sanctioned black settlement in what would become the United States. From the marker, go east on King Street to Ponce de Leon Boulevard and turn left. Take North Ponce de Leon  Boulevard to Saratoga Road and turn right. Keep straight to the fort.

Lincolnville is the picturesque historic black community of St. Augustine. It is  worth a visit. Take King Street east to Martin Luther King Ave. Turn right and you’re there. Lincolnville remains historic, but has undergone re-gentrification. Still, the homes, churches and tree-lined streets make for quiet walks. Riding tours are also available.

 

 

How Morehouse College Shaped This Floridian

 

 

 

Howard Thurman

“Our manhood, and that of our fathers, was denied on all levels by white society, a fact insidiously expressed in the way black men were addressed. No matter what his age, whether he was in his burgeoning twenties or full of years, the black man was never referred to as ‘mister,’ nor even by his surname. No. To the end of his days, he had to absorb the indignity of being called ‘boy,’ ‘nigger’ or ‘uncle.’ No wonder then that every time Dr. Hope addressed us as ‘young gentlemen,’ the seeds of self-worth and confidence, long dormant, began to germinate and sprout. The attitudes we developed toward ourselves, as a result of this influence, set Morehouse men apart.”

Source: With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman   Harcourt Brace & Co.; 1979, p. 36

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Interfaith Peacemakers

Florida’s ‘Grown Folks’ Black History Month Tour

Fourth in a series of Florida “Black” Historic Marker Destinations

By Douglas C. Lyons

ROSEWOOD — On January 1, 1923, this enclave of modest houses and small businesses in Levy County, came to an end. Today, the only reminder of its existence is a historic marker along State Road 24 just outside of Cedar Key.

All it took back then was the word of a white woman in nearby Sumner who accused a black man of rape. What followed was the gathering of an angry mob of white men that burned the black settlement to the ground and killed five black residents in the process. The survivors fled, taking a vow of silence and never returned. The shame of the devastation would remain for decades.

Rosewood, Fla. 1923

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

Years later, the massacre prompted the 1997 movie Rosewood, 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.)

More importantly, though, the state of  Florida tried to right the wrong.

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. 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.

Ten years later, Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated a state historic marker at the site of the massacre along SR 24, about 50 miles south of Gainesville. in 2004.

If you go, the trip will take some planning.  Rosewood isn’t exactly in the center of things. In fact, my suggestion would be to make a day trip out of the visit and drive south to the end of SR 24 into Cedar Key, Florida’s second oldest city. It’s a fishing, and artist village on the Gulf of Mexico. You won’t find any fast food establishments, Starbucks or a Walmart. Think boating tours, fishing charters, a wildlife refugee and some unique bars, galleries and restaurants. Hotel lodging is available, but may be hard to find during the height of tourist season.

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

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

 

 

Do You Remember That Fight in Miami Beach?

Cassius Clay: The boxer who would become Muhammad Ali.

 

This week — Sunday actually — 54 years ago, a young boxer from Louisville, Ky. made history in Miami Beach. Cassius Clay, a 7-1 underdog, beat then heavyweight champ Sonny Liston in a unanimous decision.

The fight was among the most anticipated, watched and controversial matches in boxing. Few expected the upset. At the time, Clay was known more for his ability to taunt Liston than his skills in the ring. It took six rounds for Clay to silence his critics.  Liston refused to answer the bell in the seventh round.

Even fewer would guess that the new champion would go on to become an iconic American hero who would transcend the sport of boxing. Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, became a devout follower of the Nation of Islam and opposed the Vietnam War — all unthinkable behavior for a heavyweight boxing champion.

Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons

Florida’s ‘Grown Folks’ Black History Month Tour

Third in 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.

The challenge is to see it before it disappears. Like many black neighborhoods situated near prime development areas, Lincolnville is undergoing gentrification.

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

 

 

Protests for Rights Occurred Long Before the Civil Rights Movement

 

 

“Many years later, the people would stand up to water hoses and sheriff’s dogs to be treated as equal. But for now the people resisted in silent, everyday rebellions that would build up to a storm at midcentury. Rocks stuffed into cotton sacks in Mississippi at weighing time. The ‘Colored Only’ signs pulled from the seat backs at public buses and converted into dartboards in dorm rooms in Georgia. Teenagers sneaking into coffee shops and swiveling on the soda fountain stools forbidden to colored people in Florida and then running out as fast as they’d come in before anybody could catch them. Each one fought in isolation and unbeknownst to the others, long before the marches and boycotts that were decades away.”

Source: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson; Random House, 2010 p. 99

A Different Take on the Rosewood Massacre

 

 

Rosewood, Fla. 1923

“The white press depicted Rosewood as a riot stemming from the familiar poisonous root of sexual assault, exacerbated by Negroes with guns. But the black press cast the fighters of Rosewood as heroes. The New York Age compared the incident to recent acts of self-defense in Chicago where ‘the Negro was not afraid to fight back and when that fight was over he felt that he had something pretty near a fair chance before the law. Those are two conditions which the suffocating, damning atmosphere of the South does not permit.'”

Source: Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson; Prometheus Books, 2014 p. 192

Photo Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida