By Jon Wilson
When the Civil War ended in 1865, 12 former slaves on a frontier plantation stayed on to chart their futures. Visionary and bold, the newly emancipated people created a proud settlement that became known as Bealsville, Florida.
The original bell from the Antioch Baptist Church established in 1868. - Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
Among Florida’s oldest continuous African-American communities, Bealsville’s story has been one of drive and determination.
Gwendolyn Thomas attends a Sunday service. - Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
Former slaveholder Sarah Howell encouraged the original settlers to seek their own fortunes on the land. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 enabled the families to acquire property ranging from 40 to 160 acres.
From the left, Sandra Cook and Rev. Tony Bradley Sr. participate in a Sunday service at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. - Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
The original 12 families were those of Peter Dexter, Bryant Horton, Roger Smith, Robert Story, Isaac Berry, Mills Holloman, Sam Horton, Mary Reddick, Jerry Stephens, Nepture Henry, Steven Allen and Abe Messenger.
During a Sunday service at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Tony Bradley Sr. speaks from the pulpit. - Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
Dexter had learned surveying skills while a slave and used them to lay out tracts for the settlers. They built log homes from trees. Andrew Williams, son of Mary Reddick, created roads with a grubbing hoe, a mule and a plow.
At the Antioch Cemetery in Bealsville, William Thomas, the financial officer and representative for Bealsville, Inc. looks for names on grave markers of those who have made an impact on the community. - Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
According to the Hillsborough County Historical Resources Survey, the Hortons planted the first orange tree. Alfred Beal, another of Mary Reddick’s sons, sowed the first seeds, helping to start the community’s long tradition of orange production.
The original canning house where residents would bring their vegetables and fruits to can it for future use. - Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
Besides citrus, the settlers cultivated vegetables and eventually strawberries. Later, men went to work for phosphate companies such as Coronet and Mosaic.
“I can name three superintendents who rose through the ranks” of the mining companies, said Henry Davis, Bealsville Inc.’s president.
Excellent farming skills helped Alfred Beal hold on to his land during hard times when others’ property fell to foreclosure. Beal bought that land and sold it back to Bealsville residents. He also donated land for a school, a church and a cemetery. His action set a pattern still prevalent today of keeping property in the hands of local residents.
Sitting in the shade on the Glover School campus are three people with Bealsville roots: Doreatha Brown, left, a former student at the school who later became a teacher; Henry Davis, center, Bealsville Inc.’s president; and Leola Wanza McDonald, 97, right, a resident and a member of Daughters of Confederate Soldiers of America and former teacher at the school. - Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
To honor Beal, the community was named Bealsville in 1923. It originally had been called Howell’s Creek (for Sarah Howell) and for a while, Alafia.
Whatever its name, community ties remained strong.
“Everybody out here was your parent,” said Doreatha Brown, who is the great-great-great granddaughter of Mary Reddick.
Besides family, agriculture, education and religion have been Bealsville’s main building blocks, Davis said.
The community’s first school, a one-room, log cabin building, was established in 1873. Relatives of the students often were teachers, and community members maintained the school. As enrollment increased through the years, residents pleaded for a new school but it took decades to establish one.
Residents raised $1,100 from fish fries, ice cream sales and musical programs. Ben Glover donated 10 acres. A new wood-frame school was built in 1933. Glover School was named after William Glover, Ben Glover’s father.
Brown attended Glover, interned there as a student teacher and eventually became a full time teacher there. She recalls the school with affection – even the tough teachers she encountered as a child.
“I got the worst spanking of my life in that room next door,” Brown said in a recent interview in the historic school building.
For a while, the school operated on a “strawberry schedule” – terms were April to December so children could work with their parents picking strawberries.
Over community protests, the Hillsborough County School Board closed Glover in 1980 because of low enrollment and budget worries. Today, the school is used for community events. Other historic buildings remain on the site, which belongs to Bealsville Inc.
The community established Antioch Baptist Church in 1868. It was the first of five churches in the community. The church exists today in a modern building.
“We remain very proud of Bealsville,” Davis said. “We’ve seen some bad things, too, but we’ve lived through it for 150 years.”
When you go..
Here's information about taking a tour of the Plant City Black Heritage Trail and other cultural sites.