By Jon Wilson
Colonists of African heritage were among America's first people of color, and their history is inseparably entwined with the Florida story.
It surges through the saga of La Florida’s early exploration and settlement. It rises through colonial and early statehood days, continues through Florida’s sojourn into the Confederacy and back, and courses through the national civil rights struggles of the 20th Century.
More than 40 Florida museums are dedicated to telling the state’s African-American history from the 16th to the 21st centuries.
Another way it is being told is through heritage trails, both formal and informal.
“If you want to reach community history beyond the classroom, these historical trails are essential,” said eminent historian Raymond O. Arsenault. The University of South Florida professor is author of the acclaimed Freedom Riders, the definitive work about the 1961 civil rights crusade.
One of the “trails” actually is a written guide offering an immense learning experience in a specialized aspect of Florida history. The Florida Black Heritage Trail, a project of the Florida Department of State, organizes sites by regions throughout the state. The most recent edition, produced by the Division of Historical Resources, the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network and VISITFLORIDA. It is available online at archive.org/stream.
Among the more unusual highlights, many are off the beaten path: In Sneads, Jackson County, the Little Zion School served African Americans after the Civil War. It is on its original site.
In Floral City, Citrus County, Frazier Cemetery, established in 1908, is the resting place of many African Americans who worked in the phosphate boom during the late 19th Century.
In Mount Dora, Lake County, Witherspoon Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, #111 is among Florida’s oldest active Prince Hall lodges.
Daytona Beach has produced its own written guide. It mentions such figures as Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, but also many lesser-known personalities and places. Rose Marie Bryon Children’s Center is one such spot, honoring the teacher and minister who reared 30 foster children. Daytona Beach’s guide also notes the 100-year-old Daytona City Island Ballpark, renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark to honor the player who integrated modern professional baseball there in a 1946 spring training game.
Some cities have established marked pathways catering to walkers. They tell detailed history of the black experience in Florida, showcasing important and interesting places, people and buildings.
St. Petersburg’s trail is the newest. It opened in 2014 with 20 markers installed in the city’s most prominent historic black neighborhood. “This is real people’s history. It’s a whole new dimension to public history,” Arsenault said. One of the highlights is the Manhattan Casino, a 1920s dance hall that played host to virtually every famous black musician and big-band leader. It has been restored and contains a community meeting hall.
Don Tristan de Luna brought about 100 Africans to what would become Pensacola in 1559. Today, a 22-point trail points out sites reflecting colonial days, the legacy of free blacks, an 18th-Century cemetery with nobility and slaves buried side by side and 20th Century neighborhood cafes that have survived into the 21st Century.
St. Augustine boasts Lincolnville, founded in 1866 as “Little Africa” by former slaves. A 45-block area contains restored buildings including one of the oldest brick structure in Florida: the Ponce de Leon barracks, which housed Ponce de Leon Hotel employees and guests’ servants. Lincolnville was a base for civil rights activists in the 1960s. Nearby Fort Mose was established in 1739 as the first legally sanctioned African-American settlement in what became the United States.
And Fort Pierce commemorates its famous commercial artists with a trail dedicated to the Highwaymen. The city also is home to the Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Trail, commemorating the author’s life.