Ponce De Leon–lauded for his “discovery” of Florida at a time when it was populated by complex societies with vast social, political, and economic networks–took an arrow though his armor a few days into his second visit. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, a true great Floridian, wrote of him “a great ambitious and courageous man, a hero to everyone but those obscure and resolute Floridians.” Though he is remembered for many things–most of which are failures or outright fallacies–all he really gave to Florida besides its name was his death.
But why was he really here? He was not in search of gold, lands, or the Fountain of Youth. In fact, the Fountain lore was sown by Fontenada, a Spanish captive in Florida, years after Ponce’s death.
He, like those conquistadors and colonizers before and after him, was in search of bodies to enslave.
Indeed, the first sails observed by Native Floridians belonged to slavers. From the outset, they carried Africans, enslaved and free, to Florida. As a result, Africans were some of the earliest and most influential nonnative peoples to set foot in Florida. And thanks to Florida ties to Native Americans, the Spanish, Caribbean, British, and later, Americans, the state has hosted a vastly multicultural society since the first arrival of nonnatives.
Florida’s early Black history is nowhere to be found in our state’s high school curricula. As Historian David R. Colburn points out, “the African American heritage in Florida has been ignored by a white population unwilling to acknowledge that people of color had been instrumental in the creation of this state, that they governed themselves responsibly as free and independent people, and that they contribute in a variety of meaningful ways to the development of Florida and the United States as a whole.”
In this post, I hope to shed some light on just a few elements of this heritage, and place into a broader historical context some of the more recent events that the State of Florida is only now beginning to teach in schools.
The impact of Black culture on Florida is much deeper and more influential than reported here; for every individual or community mentioned in this post, there are thousands more that are equally important to Florida’s history. At the very least, I hope what you learn here inspires you to continue educating yourself on the Black heritage of Florida.
The First Great Black Americans
Africans were part of every early expedition to the state of Florida. Juan Garrido, a free Congolese conquistador, joined Ponce de Leon’s expedition that led to the “discovery” of Florida in 1513. Born around 1480 in the Kingdom on Kongo, he eventually settled in Mexico City where he became the first farmer known to have sown wheat in the Americas.
By the late 1520s, Mustafa Azemmouri–Moroccan born and given the slave name Estevanico (Little Stephen) the Black–was the first African to travel through Florida and the American Southwest. He arrived in Florida an enslaved man on the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition of 1528, which ultimately ended in disaster. After a storm and shipwreck left only 80 survivors, Azemmouri and two others were enslaved by the Coahuiltecan Indians.
Five years later he escaped with Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado. Thus began a 2,000-mile journey that made them the first nonnatives in the American West. Cabeza de Vaca later published a book detailing this ordeal, making it the first published work describing the nature and culture of inland North America. In it, he describes Azemmouri as the one who went in advance of the group, and the best suited to communicate with the Native groups they encountered. As a result of this eight-year journey from Florida to Mexico City, and his later work as a guide appointed by the Viceroy of New Spain, he was one of the greatest nonnative explorers of the Americas.
Check out this post to learn more about Spain’s conquistadors and the adelantado system that was vital to its colonial exploits.
As expeditions continued, the Black population in the Americas continued to grow. Black people positioned themselves as vital interpreters between Native groups in Florida and Spanish, British, and American colonizers. In 1832, Stephen Richards, Cudjo, and Abraham interpreted for the Seminoles and Indian Agents during the Treaty of Payne’s Landing. Abraham, known among the Seminole as “Negro Chief” was a close friend and advisor to Micanopy, one of the principle chiefs during the Seminole Wars.
With the continued colonization of North America by Spain, France, and Britain, Florida quickly became haven for free and enslaved Blacks. This was due mostly in part to the Native populations, but also thanks to geography. As a Spanish colony (for now) and buffer to the rest of the British (and later, American) south, Spanish Florida’s border marked refuge for Blacks escaping their slavers. In the resulting alliances between Blacks, Seminoles, and other ‘fugitive’ groups, “the tradition of resistance flourished.”
Native Floridians also practiced slavery, but it was a vastly different from the Anglo-American system of the British and American south. Blacks living with Seminoles was a point of contention for Whites because their slavery system was comparatively much more lenient, akin to tenant farming. Blacks lived in their own villages and paid harvest tributes and a percentage of their yield to a chief. Even the Spanish system acknowledged an enslaved person’s humanity and basic rights. As a result, a significant free Black class was burgeoning through Spanish and Native Florida.
By 1700, there would be an estimated 100,000 Black Seminoles. During the American Revolution, people fleeing slavery joined the British, following the promise of freedom. After the war, when Florida was ceded back to Spain, the escaped slaves would continue to find sanctuary in the Seminole Nation, already composed of a variety of Muskogean-speaking groups.
By the early 1800s, Black Seminoles were emerging as a distinct community “known as ‘maroons’ and ‘Indian Negroes,’ they were initiating ties to the Florida Indians–ties that would eventually cause them to be known as Seminole Negroes, or today, Black Seminoles or Seminole Freedmen.”
After removal to Oklahoma, Black Seminoles continued to be threatened with re-enslavement. John Horse, known for his heroics in the Second Seminole War, lead a mass exodus of Blacks and Indians to Mexico, where slavery was outlawed. Today, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma has two Freedman Bands, the Cesar Bruner Band and Doser Barkus Band.
Enslaved Africans gave European colonists the foothold they needed to succeed in this ‘new’ world. They were part of every early expedition to Florida, they supported colonies, they built St. Augustine–the oldest European settlement in what is now the U.S.—and they established the first free Black town in North America in 1752 at Garcia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, about two miles north of St. Augustine. Fort Mose (pronounced mo-say) was, for a time, the northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire.
In addition, some of North America’s first free Black communities were established at and around present-day Gainesville, Tallahassee, Sarasota, and Apalachicola. Blacks escaping British slavery in Georgia and South Carolina found safety in these communities.
When the British attacked Fort Mose and nearby St. Augustine in 1740, the fort was lost. But the people of Fort Mose escaped to and successfully defended St. Augustine. The Black community stayed on in St. Augustine for another twelve years, until the Fort was rebuilt in 1752. When the British seized Florida in 1763, the community abandoned the Fort and made for Cuba with the Spanish of St. Augustine.
The treaty in which Spain turned Florida back to the U.S. territorial government required the new government to respect the rights of free Blacks. Some Black people remained, but many fled with the Spanish to Cuba, and many more took refuge with the Seminole Nation. Instead of respecting these rights, the new government led a campaign to destroy them.
Jacksonian “Democracy” and a Threat to White Supremacy
Indian Removal policies in Florida were unlike removal policies in other states. Land was not the main concern, as there was plenty of public land in Florida that could be had without displacing Native communities. Instead, removal in Florida was largely driven by slavery, and fueled by White America’s unease with the mutual sympathies shared by Seminoles and Blacks.
The Black Seminoles had become influential interpreters between Tribes and the Indian Agents pursuing removal on behalf of the government. But many of these agents owned and speculated in enslaved peoples themselves and could not be trusted to negotiate in good faith. As a result, discussion of removal between Whites and Indian Nations, which almost always involved the fate of enslaved or free Blacks, often failed. Seminoles were routinely offered to turn on the Black Seminoles in exchange for land and autonomy. Knowing that it meant a return to American slavery, the Seminoles repeatedly declined.
As communities of Blacks, Natives, and other non-white peoples continued to develop and flourish across the state, white settlers, and slavers saw this as a threat to the order of white supremacy. In particular, the Seminole Wars were catalyzed by White American unease with the alliances among Blacks and Seminoles, and with the development of successful, free Black towns in Spanish Florida.
One of these towns grew around a fort that was originally built by the British and eventually turned over to Native Floridians and Blacks after the Treaty of Ghent brought an end to the War of 1812. (The treaty returned all territory to pre-war status, so Florida was back under Spanish control, and a refuge for Blacks.) Under the leadership of a Black man named Garcon, the African American population at what became known as the Negro Fort grew to over 300.
White southerners wielded their constant fear of Blacks and Native Americans and prompted the government into taking action against them. Indeed, government officials often stoked this fear for their own ends. In this case, the man responsible for cultivating a fear of the Negro Fort was Andrew Jackson, who wrote of the Fort:
“I have little doubt of the fact, that this fort has been established by some villains for the purpose of rapine and plunder, and that it ought to be blown up, regardless of the ground on which it stands; and if your mind shall have formed the same conclusion, destroy it and return the stolen Negroes and property to their rightful owners.”
The pressure from White slaveholders–instigated by Jackson and others–was driving government policy, and in this case, foreign policy. Still, the American government knew that any action on the Fort, which was in Spanish Florida, would be seen as an attack on the Spanish. This was a risk they were not willing to take.
Though a staunch defender of the Constitution, Jackson often paid no attention to it, or to his superiors. He would “repeatedly ignore the parts of the document that gave Congress the sole authority to declare war and the State Department the responsibility to handle foreign policy.” Despite having no such orders, Jackson took it upon himself to deal with the Fort.
In July of 1816 Jackson’s men fired a “hot shot”—a cannonball made red hot after stoking it in fire—that found the Fort’s powder magazine. In an instant, over 250 men, women, and children were killed by a blast that was heard in Pensacola, over 100 miles away. More died of their wounds. The survivors were returned to a life of slavery in America.
The carnage at the Negro Fort was appalling even to hardened veterans of war on the American side. To Jackson and the American aggressors, it proved that the Spanish Empire in the Americas was too weak to hold Florida. Further, Jackson’s actions directly contributed to the start of the Seminole Wars the next year. The Seminole Wars would become the longest, bloodiest, and most costly of all the American wars on Indian Nations. As one of the staunchest advocates of Indian removal, this is exactly what Jackson had intended.
The tactics of settlers, plantation owners, slavers, and Jackson were a resounding success; in 1819, Spain would cede Florida to the U.S. via the Adams–Onís Treaty. With the stroke of a pen, Florida became one of the most dangerous places for Black people in North America.
Ultimately, the Seminole Wars and the American quest for Indian removal in Florida won by the Whites, but not without a guarantee from Major General Thomas Jesup that Blacks would be permitted to go West with the Seminoles rather than being sold into slavery. Though not yet president during the massacre at the Negro Fort, Jackson held the office in 1830 when he signed the Indian Removal Act, forcibly sending the Seminoles and other Natives on the Trail of Tears.
By the end of the Third Seminole War (1855-1858), the U.S. Government forced most Seminoles out of Florida entirely, but a small band of roughly 500 Mikasuki Seminoles remained in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp. These are The Undefeated.
Continued American Control
Under American control, Florida quickly became one of the most dangerous places for Blacks. The Equal Justice Initiative reports that Florida was among “the most brutal in the country when it comes to race-fueled executions of black people. Per capita, Floridians lynched at a higher rate than any other state.”
Between 1877 and 1950, the report details 3,959 “racial terror lynchings,” described as violent, public acts of torture, tolerated by public officials, and meant to intimidate Black communities. Many victims were not even accused of crimes, but were murdered for “minor social transgressions” or for demanding basic rights.
The Newberry Six, for example, were lynched for merely being associated with Boisey Long, who had killed a constable serving a warrant for stolen hogs. Long had eluded officials, so a police-organized posse rounded up all those close to Long, accusing them of aiding in his escape. Soon after, on August 18, 1916, a White mob of over 200 took the six of them from jail, including Long’s wife Stella Young, and lynched them from a single oak tree near Newberry.
Local newspapers called it a “Lynching Bee.” Rumors that the coroner ruled the lynching deaths “freak accidents” such as running into barbed wire and bleeding to death, remain unconfirmed today. Long was eventually captured, tried, and sentenced to death by hanging.
Just four years later in Ocoee, a White mob attacked Blacks who were exercising their right to vote despite vigorous voter suppression efforts. Two churches and 25 homes were burned; over 30, and perhaps up to 50 died. The Black section of Ocoee was razed. It was the “single bloodiest day in modern American political history.” The next summer, White people threw dynamite into the homes of Black people.
The tactics of the white supremacist mob were a resounding success: in 1920, 255 Black people lived in Ocoee, 18 of whom owned land. By 1930, two remained, and both were servants. Ocoee essentially became an all-White town. Not until the 1970s would a Black person own property in Ocoee.
These tactics would be repeated again on Axe Handle Saturday in 1960. After being refused service at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, a group of students engaging in sit-ins in Jacksonville were attacked by a White mob of over 200, some members of the KKK, armed with axe handles. The mob violence spread as they began attacking any Black person in sight. This time, the White supremacists failed, and Jacksonville lunch counters were desegregated the next year.
In Perry in 1922, just two years after the Ocoee Massacre, a 21-year-old escaped convict named Albert Young was apprehended by police after the murder of Ruby Hendry, a White woman. A White mob numbering in the thousands (both local and out-of-state), seized Young from the sheriff, and tortured him into “confessing.”
They burned Albert Young at the stake as members of the crowd collected souvenirs from his body.
Even after Young’s murder, the mob continued to terrorize Black residents of Perry. Two more Black men were shot and lynched, and the White mob burned down Perry’s Black school, Masonic Lodge, church, other public buildings, and several homes.
Less than a month later, on New Year’s Day in 1923, a White woman from Sumner claimed she was attacked by a Black man. Though her White boyfriend was known to be abusive towards her, a White gang quickly assembled. Their hunting dog led them a few miles away to Rosewood, a Black community.
Over the next week, Whites, again not just from Sumner but from other Florida cities and even as far off Georgia, terrorized Rosewood and its citizens, burning homes, schools, and churches.
The mob tortured Black residents, notably Sam Carter, for information on the woman’s non-existent Black attacker. The White men cut off Sam’s ears and fingers for souvenirs. James Carrier, partially paralyzed, was made to dig his own grave before he was shot in it. Lexie Gordon managed to get her children to safety before the White mob threw her into a burning house.
Witnesses recall deaths numbering from 40 to 150 people. Local newspapers reported the dead numbering between seven and eight.
Again, success for White Americans. The town was abandoned by the surviving residents. No one moved back and no one was compensated for their land. Rosewood ceased to exist.
These events did not occur in a vacuum, but they are rooted in a historical context of White unease with Black progress; and with the desire to maintain the order of White supremacy in America. Paul Ortiz describes them as “part of a larger wave of anti-black race riots…aimed against the social progress of black people.”
Last week Bomani Jones, a Black ESPN commentator, went off on Will Cain, a White radio host, after Cain argued that Bubba Wallace’s noose incident was not a hate crime, and that it would set the anti-racism movement back. Jones responded that the fans waving Confederate flag outside of the Talladega Speedway are “far bigger impediments” to social progress:
“White folks gotta live with the fact that you’re asking for a benefit of the doubt that is not supported by the historical record.”
This is true of all states, but perhaps most notably in Florida, where the rich history of African heritage had a far bigger impact on the trajectory of our state’s development than any other nonnative cultural group. Blacks in early Florida participated in every Spanish expedition to the state, established early forts and free communities including St. Augustine, they fought in all armed conflicts in the Americas, they were instrumental in Florida’s greatest Civil War battle at Olustee, they combated racism and White supremacy, they led great uprisings, they negotiated the terms of their own labor, and they resisted.
Florida has failed to come to terms with its racial heritage because the public is so ignorant of it.
Indeed, teachings of this history has been actively suppressed. Only now, in 2020, are Florida schools adding the Ocoee Massacre to their curricula, thanks to a bill that originally included reparations for descendants until Florida’s Republicans made it clear that they would not support a bill with compensation included. Perhaps Rosewood will be added to curriculum next. Then the Newberry Six, the Perry Riot, the Negro Fort Massacre, Axe Handle Saturday…
Lastly, it is important to remember that the erasure of Black communities, of Black culture and history, is not always violent. The remains of many of Florida’s Black communities can be found beneath our highways, our stadiums, even our own state capitol complex. For every Negro Fort, Rosewood, Perry, and Ocoee, there is a Parramore, a Smokey Hollow, an Overtown. Often the most effective erasure is state sponsored, under the pretense of urban renewal.
Further Reading and Research
Colburn, David R. and Jane L. Landers (eds), 1995. The African American Heritage of Florida. University Press of Florida.
Downs, Ray, 2015. “Florida Lynched More Black People Per Capita Than Any Other State, According to Report.” Broward and Palm Beach New Times, February 11, 2015.
Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.
Jones, Maxine D. and Kevin M. McCarthy, 1993. African Americans in Florida. Pineapple Press.
Klos, George, 1995. “Blacks and the Seminole Removal Debate, 1821-1835.” From African Americans in Florida, edited by Jones and McCarthy. University Press of Florida.
Landers, Jane L., 1995. “Traditions of African American Freedom and Community in Spanish Colonial Florida.” From African Americans in Florida, edited by Jones and McCarthy. University Press of Florida.
Milanich, Jerald T., 1998. Florida’s Indians from Ancient Times to the Present. University Press of Florida.
Missall, John and Mary Lou Missall, 2004. The Seminole Wars: America’s Longest Indian Conflict. University Press of Florida.
Ortiz, Paul, 2010.“Ocoee, Florida: Remembering ‘the single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history.'” FacingSouth.
Rivers, Larry E., 1995. “A Troublesome Property: Master-Slave Relations in Florida.” From African Americans in Florida, edited by Jones and McCarthy. University Press of Florida.
Seminole Nation Museum, 2017. Seminole Freedman.
Schafer, Daniel L., 1995. “Yellow Silk Ferret Tied Round Their Wrists”: African Americans in British East Florida, 1763-1784.” From African Americans in Florida, edited by Jones and McCarthy. University Press of Florida.
Smith, Julia, 1972. Slavery and Plantation Growth in Antebellum Florida: 1821-1860. University Press of Florida.
Wilson, Kirby, 2020. Florida schools now must teach the Ocoee Election Day Massacre. Here’s why that matters. Tampa Bay Times, June 25, 2020.