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

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going with The “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour?”

Mark your calendars. The fifth stop of the summer “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” is coming up. Check back here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, August 3rd to see our next black historic destination. Enjoy the trip, and check it out. You’ll learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Florida Black Historic Marker Honors Zora Neale Hurston, But Not in Eatonville

 

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.

 

 

Where is Douglas C. Lyons Going with The ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour?’

Looking north along Mizell-Johnson State Park

Mark your calendars. We’re coming up on the fourth stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” summertime road trip. Check out  www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, July 20th to see our next black historic destination. Enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Douglas C. Lyons

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

 

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going With This ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’ Now?

Entering Rosewwod

Mark your calendars. We’re coming up on the third stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour.” We’ve already visited Delray Beach and Rosewood. Where to next? Be here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, July 6th to see our next destination. Check out our trip through Florida’s Black History. You’ll enjoy the ride and might even learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Moni3@English Wikipedia

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 outside 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.

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going Next with the ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’?

Mark your calendars. The second stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” summertime road trip is coming up soon. Check back here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, June 22 to see our next black historic destination.  Check it out. You’ll enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Douglas C. Lyons

 

Our First ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’ Stop Is …

 

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

West Settlers Historic District Marker and Me

DELRAY BEACH — Welcome to South Florida and the ‘Village by the Sea,” the first stop of our summer  “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour.”

The state of Florida has about 800 historic markers to honor homes, businesses and community landmarks that are a part of Sunshine State history. Many of those markers describe the contributions black Floridians have made to the state’s development.

My goal is to visit as many of them as I can.

I hate to admit this, but I discovered my first stop by accident. I was headed to my neighborhood soul-food joint in Delray Beach, Donnie’s Place. The restaurant is located in the West Settlers Historic District, the site of the city’s first African American community.

5th Avenue: The Hub of West Settlers Historic District

The West Settlers Historic District received local historic designation in 1997 and today remains in the hub of Delray Beach’s black community. Northwest 5th Avenue is the district’s cultural focal point. It’s home to The Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, the former home of Solomon D. Spady, one of the city’s most influential African Americans.

The area hasn’t seen the development and re-gentrification hat has taken place in other in-town neighborhoods. Unlike some other iconic black areas in Florida,  the West Settlers Historic District remains predominantly black community.

Spady Cultural Heritage Museum

The black historic district in Delray Beach is just one of many historic attractions that tell the story of black achievement in the Sunshine State. Give credit to the Florida Department of State and the many local community organizations and county and municipal governments for stepping up and deciding to preserve Florida’s black history.

The next destination is in another part of the state and tells a compelling story about Florida’s remarkable black history. It’s a far cry from trendy Delray Beach. Stay tuned.

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

Accessibility: Easy. Take the Atlantic Avenue exit off Interstate 95  east to N.W. 5th Avenue. Turn left, and you’re in the West Settlers Historic District.

Area Attractions: There’s still more to do outside of Delray Beach’s  Historic West Settlers District. However, the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum is worth a visit, as is Donnie’s Place Restaurant.

Photo Credits: Douglas C. Lyons and Ebyabe

 

 

 

Tomorrow We Kick Off the Tour into Florida’s Black History

Tomorrow is the day! We begin our summer road trip through Florida history on  www.blackinfla.com., and the question is: Where should we start?

How about Jacksonville, a town that once was the South’s most progressive black community? Or St. Augustine, home of Florida’s first settlement for runaway slaves? Or Key West, a sanctuary city long before Americans ever knew about the term? Check back to see where we begin and follow us on this unique tour. You’ll enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons