“Florida Spanish territory was involved in the slave trade, and that influence begins in the beginning of the 16th Century,” says Nashid Madyun, executive director of the Black Archives and Research Center at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). “Yes, slavery predates 1619 in America. As history goes on, dates and cornerstones tend to become muffled. The important thing is not the date, but to have a conversation about oppression and how people have elevated themselves above it.”
Black slaves would become the predominant labor force of the cotton and sugar plantations that sprouted throughout the Sunshine State, a system remembered today in the names of towns such as Plantation. Florida was part of the Deep South’s Cotton Belt, but it was also home to sugar plantations both large and small. The harsh conditions of enslavement on sugar plantations is widely acknowledged by historians as being even worse than those on the cotton fields. Newspapers from the era carried ads of slave owners looking to buy and sell humans, and wills often contained instructions on how to train child slaves.
“We have a responsibility to learn so we can clearly see our future and not repeat the past,” Madyun says. “America ne to look at the truth.”
Even the Emancipation Proclamation did not end Big Sugar’s use of slave labor in Florida. The U.S. Sugar Corporation was indicted for enslaving black sugarcane workers on Florida plantations as late as 1942, nearly 80 years after President Abraham Lincoln decreed “that all persons held as slaves… shall be free.” In his 1989 book, Big Sugar: Seasons in the Canefields of Florida, New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson found that Florida‘s sugar industry still treated its predominantly Jamaican cutters as slaves, a problem that lingers today with migrant farmworkers.
In 1837, Jonathan Walker arrived in Pensacola to work on one of the first railroads crisscrossing the state, but he was arrested seven years later for working on an entirely different railroad. The Massachusetts-born abolitionist was caught off the east coast of Florida trying to help seven enslaved Africans sail to freedom in the Bahamas. Walker “came to the conclusion that slavery was evil and only evil,” according to his later memoir, Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, and he saw it as his divine obligation to help free men and women from the “national poison” of bondage. Walker was imprisoned for nearly a year and branded with the letters SS — “slave stealer” — on the palm of his left hand.
“Most people think of the Underground Railroad as leading north to Ohio and Canada,” George of HistoryMiami says, “but one of Florida‘s best-kept secrets is the Southern version of the Underground Railroad.”
In 1693, the Spanish crown officially began offering asylum to runaway slaves as long as they converted to Roman Catholicism and served in the military for four years. That policy — an attempt to destabilize the economy of the British colonies farther north — led Spanish Florida to become a haven for runaway slaves in the 18th Century. Fort Mose, located near St. Augustine, in 1738 became the first authorized free black settlement in what would later become the United States.
But that freedom did not last. Free men, women, and children risked re-enslavement after the signing of the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1821, which effectively made Florida a U.S. territory that allowed slavery. The first of the state’s slavery statutes would be enacted the following year, so black Floridians began to meet up on the beaches of South Florida to flee the country to safety in the Bahamas, where they made a new home for themselves.
To escape slavery was an act of resistance, and the journey for hundr of enslaved Africans in Florida lay across 150 miles of open, unpredictable waters. Florida‘s location at the bottom of the Deep South made the logistics of escaping north insurmountable, but island nations to the east offered refuge. Some escapees found help from people like Walker on their voyage, while others traversed the Gulf Stream in long paddle boats built by the Seminoles. Entire families left Florida‘s shores in the dark of night, following the stars toward a new life in the Caribbean.
It was not an easy journey, but anything was better than what they were leaving behind. Some escapees were intercepted by slave catchers. Their names never made it into the newspapers, but the names of their owners did, as Florida offered a $350 reward — between $6,000 and $7,000 in today‘s dollars — for the return of lost “property.”
Today Florida has two designated National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites: Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. The Cape Florida Lighthouse, built in 1825, is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County. Its light provided safety to ships sailing around South Florida, but it also made it nearly impossible for slaves to escape undetected, cutting off a key meeting spot of Florida‘s Underground Railroad.
The fourth governor of Florida, Madison Starke Perry, was a leader among his fellow sugar and cotton plantation owners. The election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was a concerning prospect for slave owners in the state, which had one of the fastest-growing slave economies on the eve of the Civil War. Soon after Lincoln’s election, Perry called a special meeting of the state Legislature to discuss the possibility of leaving the Union. A statewide election was held three days before Christmas to choose the 69 delegates who would meet at the Tallahassee Secession Convention.
“The rapid spread of Northern fanaticism has endangered our liberties and institutions, and the election of Abraham Lincoln, a wily abolitionist, to the Presidency of the United States of America destroys all hope for the future,” John C. Pelot, a slave owner from Alachua County, said in his opening statement as chairman of the convention January 3, 1861.
Slavery was the central reason Florida would become the third state to secede from the United States that year. The men who met at the Tallahassee Secession Convention said so themselves, according to Journal of the Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Florida, written by William S. Harris, the convention’s secretary. John C. McGhee, who was elected president of the convention, concurred.
“At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property,” McGhee said following his induction January 5. The same day, Florida began discussions with Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina — the beginning of the Confederacy. McGhee testified that “the institution of domestic slavery is recognized, and the right of property in slaves is expressly guaranteed” in the U.S. Constitution. If that guarantee were to be stripped, McGhee asserted that “slave states will withdraw their political connection from the non-slaveholding states” to “establish another Confederation.”
Calhoun County’s McQueen McIntosh delivered the first draft of the preamble of Florida‘s ordinance of secession, saying that “all hope of the preservation of the Federal Union upon terms consistent with the safety and honor of the slaveholding States, has been finally dissipated by the recent indications of the strength of the anti-Slavery sentiment of the free States.”
Sixty-five members of the Tallahassee Convention signed Florida‘s Ordinance of Secession January 10. Although few battles were fought in Florida during the Civil War, the state — a major source for food and supplies during the next four years of warfare — basically became the breadbasket for the Confederate States Army.
The night before Election Day 1920, members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in Ocoee, a small town northwest of Orlando. In full regalia, they paraded through black neighborhoods late into the night to warn residents to stay away from voting booth the following morning.
But some residents could not be frightened that easily. Julius “July” Perry was born the year of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted black men the right to vote. By 1920, he was a leader in his community — a landowner, church deacon, husband, and father. He and another African-American, Mose Norman, made multiple attempts to vote November 2, 1920. Each time, they were turned away by the white men in charge of the voting booths. Determined to cast a ballot, Norman rode to Orlando to consult with a judge on their legal recourse. The KKK responded with violence.
Dozens of African-Americans lost their lives that day after armed white citizens descended upon Ocoee to disrupt the black vote. Hundr more fled as black homes, businesses, a school, and a church were razed. Burned bodies were found in their smoldering homes the next day. Perry was shot and wounded before being arrested and placed in an Orlando jail cell. The following morning, his lynched body was found riddled with bullets and hanging from a light pole. Nobody was ever arrested for his murder.
Although the government refused to investigate the obvious violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, NAACP investigators suggest anywhere from 30 to 60 Ocoee residents were killed that Election Day. The entire black community was driven out, and Ocoee remained a “sundown” — a place where African-Americans were warned to get out by nightfall — for decades thereafter. No black person lived in Ocoee again until the 1980 U.S. Census.
“It was decided with a great deal of heat to prevent the blacks from voting, which was done,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston, who interviewed survivors of the Ocoee massacre the following decade as part of the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the State of Florida during the Great Depression.
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, gave black men the right to vote. By 1920, women had also been granted access to the ballot box after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But institutional racism, Jim Crow laws, and white-supremacist terrorism have kept black Floridians away from the voting booth ever since.
“African-Americans had organized a statewide voter registration movement that really began in World War I,” says Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida and the author of Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida From Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. “When it became clear blacks would vote in record numbers, the Ku Klux Klan likewise reorganized in response.”
Segregation in the South would have been disrupted by black political participation, so the KKK in Florida — the state branch at the time considered the most powerful paramilitary organization in the nation — led a white terror campaign that included numerous assassinations throughout the state.
“The 1960s were tough, but think about what it meant for African-Americans to register to vote in the 1920s,” Ortiz says. “It was a tremendous act of bravery and courage. They were risking their businesses, their homes, their families, and their lives. They could be shot down while standing in that voting line, and indeed many were.”
Florida state Sen. Randolph Bracy and state Rep. Kamia Brown grew up near Ocoee and have called for a thorough investigation into the events 100 years ago. In August, Bracy introduced a bill that would provide reparations to the descendants of the victims of the Ocoee massacre. He’s also organizing the inaugural July in November Festival this November 2 to honor the life and legacy of Julius “July” Perry.
“We’ve had some progress, but there is still a race issue in America,” Bracy says. “Some want this story to stay in the past, but we can’t heal as a community or as a nation until we talk about what happened and seriously deal with it. A monument or an apology is great, but it’s just not enough.”
Legend has it that Harriet Tubman sang old African-American spirituals to guide escaped slaves to safety on the Underground Railroad. Tubman reportedly used the song “Wade in the Water” to help teach slaves how to avoid slave catchers, because hounds couldn’t pick up their scent if they were submerged: “Wade in the water, children/Wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water.”
“Water and railroads traditionally represent freedom in African-American gospel,” Madyun says. “‘Wade in the Water’ was a signal — an opportunity for freedom — and a reminder that whatever you encounter in the future is better than oppression.”
Wading into the water was not only an act of resistance for slaves, but also an act of civil rights protest for Floridians of later generations. In addition to sit-ins and boycotts, wade-ins at segregated beaches and pools became a go-to tactic of the civil rights movement.
Wading into the water was not only an act of resistance for slaves, but also an act of civil rights protest for Floridians of later generations. Facebook Twitter
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Returning to a segregated South after fighting for freedom in Europe during World War II, black veterans and their supporters held a wade-in at the whites-only Haulover Beach in May 1945. By the end of that summer, Virginia Key Beach opened as the first Miami-Dade beach that people of color could enjoy, although it would continue to be a dumping ground for white sewage waste — an early example of Miami’s long history of environmental injustice.
Robert Hayling, a military veteran, dentist, and civil rights activist, led a protest against St. Augustine’s segregated 400th-anniversary celebration in March 1963. Nine years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had decreed that “separate but equal is not equal” in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, but racist Jim Crow laws and segregated facilities and events were still the norm in Florida. Hayling and three of his NAACP associates were kidnapped, severely beaten, and almost killed by the KKK in September that year. Hayling avoided death, but he was convicted of assaulting KKK members at their rally after he was involuntarily taken there.
As the St. Augustine movement began to gain steam and attract more attention, civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Florida to lend their support in the spring of 1964. College students from near and far arrived for spring break not to party, but to participate in civil disobedience. King was arrested on the steps of the all-white Monson Motor Lodge June 11. The largest mass arrest of rabbis occurred at the Monson Motor Lodge a week later.
Civil rights protesters staged a wade-in at the motor lodge’s pool June 18, 1964. The Civil Rights Act had been languishing in the U.S. Senate during an 83-day filibuster when photos of the hotel manager pouring acid into the pool of terrified protesters hit newsstands around the world. The Civil Rights Act was approved the following day.