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.
“Cassius struggled to get to sleep that first night. He later complained that the worst times of training in Miami were the lonely hours after dark. ‘I just sit here like a little animal in a box at night,’ he told a sportswriter in 1961. ‘I can’t go out in the street and mix with the folks out there ’cause they wouldn’t be out there if they was up to any good. I can’t do nothing except sit … Here I am, just 19, surrounded by showgirls, whisky and sissies, and nobody watching me. All this temptation and me trying to train to be a boxer. It’s something to think about.'”
“Driven from public service by the same white supremacists he had conciliated while in office, Josiah T. Walls fought successfully to have public land set aside near Tallahassee for the establishment of a training school for black students. Initially known as the State Normal College for Colored Students, it later became the Agricultural and Mechanical School, later still the legendary Florida A&M. Marginalized and ignored, Walls passed the final years of life working on the school’s farm.”
“During the interview, the governor never mentioned the historic nature of the appointment, but ‘of course, we both knew that.’ One thing the governor did ask, however, was whether I would be willing to run for office if appointed. “I knew that you had to run — I didn’t know when — but I said, ‘Sure. I’ll run.’
At this point, I thought an appointment unlikely, ‘so I said yes to anything,’ and lo and behold, then the next thing that happened was I was appointed.”
Second in a series of Florida “Black” Historic Marker Destinations
CRESCENT CITY — Take the turn off US Highway 17 onto Eucalyptus Ave. and open the door to a glimpse of old Florida. A mix of modest wood-frame and brick houses dot the small lots in this black neighborhood, where strangers still get a friendly wave from people passing the time sitting on their front porches.
Turn the clock back to 1891, when opportunities beyond framework, fishing and work at the nearby sawmill were limited, and it’s easy to see why the Rev. James Williams Randolph, a minister and tailor, moved his family to Jacksonville. For the minister’s second son, the move would be significant — for the nation.
A. Phillip Randolph would go on to lead the nation’s first predominantly black labor union — The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As a civil rights leader, he helped shape a movement that ultimately ended legal racial segregation in the United States, The recognition of his birthplace is one of the estimated 80 state historic markers that designate Florida’s rich black history.
In the late 1800s, Jacksonville was the black mecca of the South. At the time, black professionals like the Randolphs could thrive in a community that boasted of prominent black businesses and a growing black arts and cultural scene. It was here that young Asa Phillip Randolph learned from his father that conduct and character often made more of an impression on others than skin color.
A. Phillip Randolph would eventually leave Florida altogether and make a name for himself as a labor leader and civil rights icon. He founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the influential black labor union, and he became a leader in the civil rights movement, organizing not one but two “marches” on Washington.
Crescent City hasn’t changed much from the days when Randolph’s father led Sunday services at a church not far from Randolph’s home. Nestled between two lakes about 23 miles south of Palatka, this community shows no signs of the population boom and development that have fueled other parts of the state.
Yet, the citizens of this Central Florida town recognized Randolph’s historical significance. Town leaders worked with historians and state officials to name a street after the civil rights leader and erected a state historic marker along the street where Randolph was born and spent the first two years of his life.
First of a Series of Florida’s “Black” Historic Marker Destinations
SUMATRA — Long before the term came into being, the”Negro Fort” was a sanctuary city. Built and later abandoned by the British, the outpost was home to runaway slaves fleeing Georgia and the Carolinas for a better life. It didn’t take long for white southerners to view an outpost of armed blacks as a threat.
The battle for the “Negro Fort” began on July 27, 1816. It didn’t last long. A cannonball from a U.S. Army gunship hit a powder magazine, which contained the fort’s ammunition. Most of the 300 black residents inside the complex were killed, and the explosion could be heard 100 miles away in Pensacola, Fla.
Today, Fort Gadsden is perhaps Florida’s most inaccessible historical sites. It is one of the estimated 80 black historic landmarks that is commemorated in the Florida Historical Marker program. However, given its remote location in Florida’s Panhandle, it’s a destination that few will visit, or even know.
“Isolated” is too kind of a description. What’s left of the fort sits in the Apalachicola National Forest off SR 65 just south of Sumatra, a pinprick of a community on the Franklin-Liberty county line. Don’t expect crowds. Solitude dominate the picturesque setting. It’s like visiting a cemetery in the woods.
The park offers scenic river views, a picnic area, kiosks that explain the fort’s history and short hiking trails. There’s also that mass grave commemorating the victims of the Negro Fort’s final battle and the remains of soldiers who died in the rebuilt fort that was occupied the site until 1863.
Don’t be intimidated by the closed gate at the park’s entrance. The park is accessible by foot and “open” to the public during daylight hours. A visit takes effort, but the trip to a piece of Florida’s past now lost of history and its inconspicuous location is worth it.
DELRAY BEACH — The remains of the old Carver High School is another bit of Florida history involving its black citizens fading away to so-called progress.
The school was once the city’s all-black high school. Jim Crow laws saw to that. The Palm Beach County School District wants to raze the site due to the decrepit condition of the buildings. Graduates of the school want to keep part of the site, thus preserving the history and significance.
The District is trying to work something out. The situation makes you wonder where the historical societies are on this one.
“Nathaniel Wilkerson, a black college graduate who could only find work as a chaffer, organized a mass meeting of over 400 tenants at a Fort Lauderdale Baptist church. He explained to the media, black community leaders and, later, city commissioners how the city’s colored tenants ‘ have no protection.’
Leases, when renters got them, were one-way documents that bound tenants to pay rent, but let landlords off scot-free. Tenants already paid between half and two-thirds of their income in rent; when they refused to pay more, landlords responded with a wave of evictions. One 60 year-old white landlord, Ben Biegelsen, filed 40 eviction notices in immediate response to black demands for repairs. ‘If they force us out,’ one tenant warned, ‘they’ll have to evict every Negro in Fort Lauderdale.’
Ultimately, Fort Lauderdale’s tenant activists suffered widespread evictions and received only weak assurances from city officials to expect more public housing. Broward’s activists, while generally disregarded, nevertheless garnered media attention that helped propel a glacial leftward lean on what should be done about Negro slums.”
“White residents detonated a second batch of dynamite on November 30, . This one generated an explosion strong enough to toss hunks of concrete debris over 50 yards from the initial blast site, causing $22,000 in damage. Miraculously, no one had been killed in either the September or November attack. Local people nevertheless understood the attacks in the context of violence elsewhere on the globe, renaming Carver Village ‘Little Korea.’
The project’s developers used the event to shore up the point that private capital was always friend to ‘the Negro.’ John Bouvier condemned the bombing as ‘a dastardly act of professional murderers,’ and vowed to use the powers of his dollars to counteract the blatant racism he had witnessed in South Florida’s housing market over the previous decade.”
Source: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. 193