AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN FLORIDA AND
By Susan Parker
Floridas transfer to Great Britain in 1763 ended eighty years of slaves seeking sanctuary in the Spanish colony. With the territorial transfers at the end of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) all of the North American Atlantic region came under the sole rule of Great Britain. Spanish residents of all colors departed Florida for Cuba or Mexico. Among the 3,100 evacuees embarking from St. Augustine, Spanish officials counted 420 persons of African ancestry – 350 slaves and 80 free blacks and mulattoswho sailed with the Spanish. Uncounted were the Africans who remained in the peninsula as refugees among the Seminoles.
The arriving British officials wanted to make Florida (which they divided into two colonies) into a plantation colony like South Carolina. East Floridas Governor Grant championed such intentions. Like South Carolina, Florida appeared to offer the potential for wealth from rice and indigo. Experience had taught that the success and profit of these cash crops required a sizeable slave labor force. British investors concluded that the work forces should be a mixture of laborers trained in the Americas, known as "seasoned," and of the less expensive, recently captured Africans, which cost one-third the price of experienced workers. Eventually the new Africans would become seasoned as well. Investors held opinions that after slaves had done the hard work, then white indentured workers might be a profitable addition to the colony. In an atypical labor experiment, Dr. Andrew Turnbull imported 1400 white indentured workers from the Mediterranean to work his indigo enterprise, New Smyrna. Turnbull planned to use also African slaves, but they never arrived in the intended numbers. The Mediterranean farmhands ultimately walked away en masse from the plantation. British rule offered little possibility for a free-black group, unlike the situation that had existed under the Spanish, wherein more than one-fifth of the African population of Florida had been free.
Carolina- and Georgia-born laborers composed the majority of slaves in East Florida in the 1760s, but arrivals from Africa took the lead in the 1770s. Richard Oswald, who would later negotiate peace terms after the American Revolution, transported a large number of the slaves to the "Mosquito District," todays Daytona Beach, New Smyrna and Mosquito Lagoon. Slave-worked establishments also were present along the St. Johns River, on Amelia Island, and north of St. Augustine, the colonys capital. Slaves created indigo, rice, cotton and sugar plantations from Floridas woodlands and swamps. Some slaves ran away to asylum among the Seminoles, who often chose to turn the slaves back to their owners for a substantial bounty.
The events of the American Revolution brought more slaves into the Floridas than had arrived as part of the determined importation of laborers. The Revolutionary-era arrivals accompanied their owners, whose British loyalties brought wrath and destruction in rebelling colonies, and thus fled to the unrebelling Floridas. In 1782 loyalists poured into Florida as the British forsook Charleston and Savannah, their last strongholds south of New York. Near the mouth of the St. Johns River at St. Johns Bluff, refugees hurriedly built a town of several hundred houses. More than halfabout five-eighths – of the more than 13,000 refugees were slaves. Many slaves took advantage of the situation to runaway from their owners during the trip to Florida. In the wartime economy and with so many newcomers to the Florida colony with its small extant population, prices for food and housing soared. Refugee slaveowners looked for almost any means to employ and feed their slaves.
The loyalist refugees soon faced another relocation when a defeated Great Britain gave Florida back to Spain for Spains support of the American Revolutionaries. Many of the evacuees from Florida sailed to the British Bahamas, where they joined migrants from the other North American colonies. The migration trebled the population of the Bahamas and the slaves and free blacks from this group indelibly shaped the social history of the Bahamas, immediately raising the black proportion of the population from one-half to three fourths of the whole. Most of the Florida refugees arrived via New Providenceabout 300 white families with perhaps 5000 slaves. Half of the whites stayed in New Providence while about two-thirds of the slaves went to the hitherto undeveloped Out Islands. With concerns about civil disorder because of the racial imbalance, free blacks were required to serve in the Free Company of the militia, whose specific purpose was to pursue runaway slaves.
The debarkation points in Florida presented scenarios of chaos during the 1784 and 1785 departures. The beach at the mouth of the St. Marys River was strewn with dismantled buildings, furniture, livestock and anything else salvageable. Slaves took advantage of the commotion to escape before sailing, frequently heading to the Seminole villages in the central part of the peninsula. Kidnappers from newly American Georgia crossed into Spanish Florida to steal slaves and horses, which were vulnerable targets in the chaos at evacuation sites. The lawlessness of the evacuation period set a tone of rustling and raiding for the Georgia-Florida border that would continue for decades. Some loyalist slaveholders sold their workers at reduced prices to incoming Spanish residents as a hedge against the odds of successful relocation.
The return of Spanish government in Florida brought the renewal of the sanctuary policy for runaways, enacted in 1693. With the inception of Spanish rule the governor declared more than 250 blacks to be free following baptism in the Catholic Church. Slaves continued to escape from South Carolina plantations. The Spanish government often confiscated items the escapees brought with them: putting canoes into government service, but returning firearms stolen from owners as partial satisfaction of the loss of investment represented by the slaves. Americans retaliated by crossing the international boundary marked by narrow St. Marys River and stealing Spanish Florida slaves indiscriminately as an offset for their runaways who the Spanish governor would not return. Spains inability to control the border violations and the inability of the United States to control its citizens on the fringe of the new nation created strife and concerns about invasion of Florida by the United States. In 1790 the Spanish crown yielded to diplomatic pressures and rescinded the century-old sanctuary policy. Escape to the Seminoles became more important than ever.
The free blacks in Spanish Florida pushed the exercise of their freedom to the fullest. Most free blacks lived in St. Augustine, where the urban setting offered more possibilities than on the plantations. They earned money as skilled craftspeoplebutchers, seamstresses, tanners, cooks, and barbersand as intermediaries on behalf of the government and white entrepreneurs in dealings with the Seminoles. An important goal was to secure the freedom of all family members, and free relatives worked relentlessly toward amassing enough cash to accomplish this.
But most of the blacks in Florida lived in slavery and in the countryside. The Spanish crown owned a substantial number of enslaved laborers as well, whom worked on fortifications and served as seamen. Most blacks lived on small plantations, which contained only a few slaves. In 1787 more than half of the plantations had fewer than four slaves. Catholic priests made visits to the outlying farming areas to baptize these slaves. Their involvement with the Roman Catholic Church and inclusions in its records provides much more personal information about the slaves than is available in other areas of todays United States.
Soldiers of African descent mustered, bivouacked and fought to keep Florida part of the Spanish Empire. Spanish governors were uneasy using blacks as militiamen while U.S. citizens fumed at the practice. The example that black soldiers presented to American slaves was especially horrified when black troops fought against invasions from the U.S. The free black militia engaged expeditionary forces of Americans when men from Georgia invaded Spanish Florida in 1795, hoping ultimately to make Florida part of the United States. In the summer of 1800 Floridas governor had to rely on black militias to augment his insufficient regular troops when an alliance of Seminoles and Lower Creeks, attempting to create their own independent nation, raided Florida plantations, killing and abducting slaves and settlers. One militia group was composed of former fugitive slaves from the United States. Another was manned by refugees from the island of Hispaniola. These auxiliaries from the Caribbean first had organized themselves against white French planter rule in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti). Then they switched to fighting for Spain against the French on Hispaniola and subsequently relocated to other Spanish colonies, including Florida. A militia unit manned by Cuban blacks was also garrisoned in Spanish Florida.
Slaves from the United States continued to escape to Native American groups in Florida and to a changeable relationship with them. At times runaways were returned for rewards, at other times enslaved by the Native Americans, still other instances sent to farming enterprises of the Seminoles in the interior. As an outgrowth of the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, Georgians and volunteers from Tennessee invaded Spanish Florida, seeking to take the colony for the United States and terminate the slave haven. American planters in Georgia were disturbed by the example of blacks in Florida carrying firearms individually as well as organizing in fighting forces and to obtaining their freedom through the Spanish courts when owners blocked manumission.
The invaders remained in Florida, even after U.S. President Madison withdrew his promised support, occupying some areas until 1814. The invaders faced troops composed of Spanish soldiers, white citizens, free blacks and slaves, and Seminoles. A force composed of Seminoles and escaped slaves was credited with the collapse of the invasion after their ambush of expeditionaries at Twelve Mile Swamp, south of todays Jacksonville. After the occupation forces retreated, much of Floridas formerly settled countryside remained threatened by roving bandits and marauders and this discouraged resettlement. Blacks in Spanish Florida were more susceptible than ever to capture by whites and non-whites that crossed the border from the United States.
The loss of Spains American colonies and its on-going problems with the United States led to the transfer of Florida to the United States in 1821. Even before the formal cession Americans were moving into the north central portion of Florida, lying between the Suwanee and Apalachicola rivers, to establish plantations to be worked by African-American slaves. This cotton-growing area, known as Middle Florida, grew quickly, with slaves composing a majority of the population. The presence of the Seminoles in the central part of the peninsula stymied extension of the plantation belt and continued to offer refuge to runaway slaves. American officials moved quickly to have the Seminoles relocate. Throughout the negotiating of several treaties, former runaways served as the interpreters between whites and Seminoles. Of course, slaveholders would be satisfied with nothing less than Seminoles agreement to return the former slaves.
War broke out in late 1835. Throughout the seven-year conflict known as the Second Seminole War, U.S. Army commanders differed over whether they had an obligation to return captured runaways or to transport them to western territories with their Seminole overlords. Many African-Americans who went west with the Seminoles were re-enslaved when they arrived in the Arkansas Territory. During the Florida war, blacks Seminoles fought alongside the Native Americans, although a few served as scouts and interpreters for the U.S. Army and probably acted as double agents. The Seminoles illegal trade with Cuba supplied goods and firearms, the weapons sometimes of better quality than those of the U.S. Army. In August 1842 the Army field commander Col. Worth declared the war at an end. The few hundred Seminoles remaining in Florida had retreated to the Everglades, to lands found undesirable to whites at the time. Just the distance from most settlements hindered slave escapes to the remaining Seminoles.
In the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s the legislature and city councils, especially in the older settled areas such as Pensacola, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, passed laws that over the years increasingly limited the legal rights and physical freedoms of free blacks. When slavery was ended in the Bahama Islands in 1834, Florida slaves started fleeing in small boats from these coastal cities to freedom across the Gulf Stream. Newspapers vigilantly reported rumors of sightings or violence of the runaways, whose readers acted surprised at the level of dissatisfaction among their enslaved laborers.
With the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the lives of Floridas African-Americans resembled other African descendants throughout the Confederacy. Union troops quickly occupied Floridas ports. Slaves along the St. Johns River ran to Union gunboats, where freedom awaited on board vessels that were considered Union territory. Freed slaves signed up as Union troops to fight the Confederates. More than 1000 of northeast Floridas former slaves became infantrymen in the Union Army.
African-Americans in Union-occupied areas became free citizens on New Years Day 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom came at different times throughout the Confederacy with the arrival of the Union Army, which carried of the emancipation news and the enforced the new freedoms. Slaveowners, of course, withheld news of the Proclamation. The Freedmens Bureau, as an agency of the War Department, assisted former slaves in negotiating labor contracts and other work arrangements with former slaveholders. Landowners realized that the former slaves were still vital to agricultural production.
With the defeat of the Confederacy, African-Americans males could participate in elections. Women could not vote whatever their racial category. For the first time African-Americans held elected offices at the local, state and national levels. Josiah T. Walls served as a state representative and senator and in 1870 became Floridas first African-American in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jonathan Gibbs filled the office of secretary of state while fellow African-Americans throughout the state served as member of city councils. In the years after the war, African-Americans transformed their racially segregated communities, such as Goldsboro and Eatonville in central Florida, into chartered towns that they organized and governed.
The end of Reconstruction and removal of federal troops in 1877 began a long process of curtailment of the rights and freedoms that were exercised by African-Americans in the initial years of emancipation, when Congressional policies and Union-occupation forces helped to ensure the liberties. Over the years African-Americans all but disappeared from public office, and they encountered ever more obstacles to voting. Until the 1930s African-Americans in Florida allied with the Republican Party, the party that had first included them in representative government.
In the 1880s and 1890s Floridians wooed northern investors and businesses. The building of railroads and the accompanying resort facilities changed the economy of the state. Floridas agricultural produce could now reach markets quickly and compete well in both price and quality. Visitors from cold climates could easily reach Florida and a warm winter residence.
Although northern capital financed the railroads, it was the labor of African-Americans that actually built them and kept the engines running. Bahamian blacks provided the heavy labor for clearing and grading of Henry Flaglers bold extension of the Florida East Coast Railway across the Florida Keys in the early 1900s.
Both agriculture and tourism, before air-conditioning was commonplace, needed workers during the winter. Around 1890 blacks from the Bahamas began arriving in Floridas lower east coast for seasonal agricultural work, serving as an early migrant labor force. The growth of Miami as a resort center provided special job opportunities for Bahamian women. A seasonal black staff from the northern U.S. worked at Flaglers Ponce de Leon and Alcazar hotels in St. Augustine.
Between 1900 and 1920, 10,000 to 12,000about one-fifth of the Bahamian populationcame to Florida. By 1920 the foreign-born made up a quarter of Miamis population; Bahamian blacks comprised 16% of the citys entire population. However, the better economic opportunities in south Florida offered the downside of discrimination and disdain by whites. Black Bahamians were unaccustomed to such treatment in their native islands.
In the 1880s the cigar industry in Tampa created a unique, multicultural, multiracial urban area. Afro-Cubans migrated along with Cuban-born whites and white political exiles from Spain to work in the cigar factories. These Spanish-speaking cigar makers lived in their own racially integrated community, which was accepted by other white Tampans so long as the racial mingling was contained and restricted within the Hispanic enclave. Workers shuttled between Havana and Tampa, constantly maintaining their ties with the island.
Following World War I, Florida, like the rest of the nation, experienced heightened racial tensions and anti-immigrant sentiments. In more isolated, rural areas extreme anti-racial activities brought about more lynchings and other terror, especially in the Florida panhandle. An election in 1920 in Ocoee in Orange County ended in a race riot and deaths. Halfway between Tallahassee and Tampa, the entire African-American town of Rosewood was set fire and residents killed in 1923 by a white mob caught up in the national and regional racist fears. Chicago, St. Louis and Tulsa also endured post-war race riots. In south Florida cities, many blacks bore the dual stigma of immigrant and African descendant.
During the Great Depression, the low economic and social status of blacks meant being in the worst position in deteriorated economic conditions, which effected everyone. The declaration of World War II broke the stranglehold of the Depression. World War II was the last conflict to countenance segregated military units. Florida in World War II became almost one big military post with 172 installations spread throughout the state. African-Americans from less segregated regions of the U.S. faced typical southern prohibitions on race mixing while on duty in Florida. Some towns drew up plans to control dissatisfied black troops, much as if the blacks were the enemy. German prisoners of war could use facilities from which American blacks were banned. POWs rode in railroad coach cars designated "whites-only," while black GIs were sent to baggage cars. Famous athletes, such as baseballs Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, encountered the same racial restrictions during spring training sessions in Florida.
Florida growers needed Caribbean labor more than ever with wartime demands for foods for U.S. troops and also for allies. Using black laborers from the Bahamas, Jamaica and other West Indian islands allowed labor brokers and growers control over a labor force that could be threatened with deportation which could not be exercised with American-born workers.
Florida attracted soldiers who had been stationed here to return as residents after the war. A rapidly growing population in which many newcomers had no ties to the traditional segregated practices slowly began to dilute the hold of the social and extralegal restrictions, especially in southern Florida. African-Americans began a fervent voter registration campaign believing that change would come in the voting booth. African-Americans began switching in large numbers to the Democratic Party in the mid-1940s in order to participate in the sole influential political party in the state at the time. But change was resisted violently. On Christmas Eve 1950, Harry T. Moore, state leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was killed by a bomb beneath his bed because of his voter-registration activities.
By the early 1960s blacks in Florida cities joined others throughout the south in marching to protest segregation and staging sit-ins at segregated facilities. In 1963 and 1964 Martin Luther King organized demonstrations in St. Augustine, a town celebrating its 400th anniversary of founding by Spain, to get Latin American nations, with large Afro-Latin populations, to object to such practices. It was a time when the United States fervently was wooing Latin American allegiance in the divided world of the Cold War.
Kings activities in Florida did influence Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of the following year and the Supreme Courts "one-man-one vote" ruling and related decisions brought externally imposed change to Floridas political and racial life. School districts drawn by the courts to ensure racial balance were put into place for years to come.
In south Florida, especially in Dade County, political upheavals in the Caribbean in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s brought new waves of immigrants as exiles. With so many blacks arriving from Cuba and Haiti, American-born blacks resented the competition posed by the exiles in the job market. The ability of state and local agencies to deal with the problems coming with the rapid influx of destitute immigrants was hampered because the events were snarled in the national and international political scene. Local and state government could not control the situation literally washing up on its shores.
Following the civil-rights legislation and court actions of the 1960s African-Americans once again returned to elected positions. In 1968 the first black was elected to the Florida legislature since Reconstruction. Two years later the first African-American woman was elected to the legislature, embodying the growing numbers of both blacks and women in political life. In 1992 the first African-Americans since Reconstruction were elected to represent Florida in the U.S. Congress.
Today Florida is a state undergoing rapid Latinization of its population. Floridas Latins keep one foot in Florida and the other in the exile homeland. Much of the Latin population ancestry can be traced to Africa in centuries past.
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Craton, Michael and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People, Vol. 1. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.
Gold, Robert L. Borderland Empires In Transition: The Triple-Nation Transfer of Florida. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Gannon, Michael, ed. The New History of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995.
Griffin, Patricia C. Mullet on the Beach: The Minorcans of Florida, 1768-1788. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1991.
Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish St. Augustine, 1687-1790. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, 1988.
Mahon, John K. History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1967.
Mohl, Raymond A. Black Immigrants: Bahamians in Early Twentieth-Century Miami, Florida Historical Quarterly, 65 (January 1987): 271-297.
Mormino, Gary R. and George E. Pozzetta. The Immigrant World of Ybor City; Italians and Their Latin Neighbors in Tampa, 1885-1985. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Parker, Susan R. Men Without God or King: Rural Planters of East Florida, 1784-1790, Florida Historical Quarterly, 69 (October 1990): 135-55.
Tanner, Helen Hornbeck. Zespedes in East Florida, 1784-1790. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN HERITAGE IN FLORIDA AND THE CARIBBEAN
British in Florida (1763-1784)
Importation of large labor forces of Africans
Elimination of free black class
In-migration of slaves with Loyalist owners during American Revolution
Spanish Administer Florida Again (1784-1821)
Out-migration of slaves with departing Loyalists
Reappearance of runaway slave policy and its termination in 1790; free-black class
Disruption on Hispaniola
Troops from Santo Domingo
Refuge for runaway slaves among Seminoles
American protests of Spanish slave policies in Florida
Americans in Patriot War
Acquisition of Florida by United States
Importation of slaves into Middle Florida
Seminole War and role of African-Americans in the conflict
Removal of African-Americans with Seminoles
Participation by former Florida blacks in border conflicts in southwest
Diminishing of free-blacks rights and freedoms
Bahamas as a refuge for runaway Florida slaves
Civil War, Reconstruction and Segregation
Freedom comes with arrival of Federal troops
Escaping to Federal gunboats and fighting as Union troops
Reconstruction and participation of African-American males in elective government
Establishment of African-American towns: Eatonville, Goldsboro, etc.
Jim Crow laws of post-Reconstruction era
Blacks work in tourism, railroads and agriculture
Black Bahamian migrant labor
Multiethnic Tampa and Miami: Cubans, Spaniards, Americans, African-Americans
Terrorism: Ku Klux Klan; Rosewood
Migrant Labor during World War II
Fighting men still segregated
Jamaican and Bahamian workers
Fighting discrimination at mid century
South Florida and Afro-Latins:
Caribbean basin immigrants and their orientation toward homeland rather assimilation
Afro-Cubans; recent Haitian immigration.