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Ten Stops Along Florida's Black Heritage Trail
Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, "Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho' we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny."
That perspective also translates well to African-Americans' oft-overcast history in the Sunshine State.
Blacks have been instrumental to Florida's fortunes, and the tribulations and victories Africans have experienced here since the first blacks participated in 16th century Spanish explorations and in the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565 are woven into the Florida fabric as tight as the red bars lancing the Florida flag.
Nine years ago, the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, took note of that history, publishing The Florida Black Heritage Trail, a compendium of more than 140 places that reflects African Americans' significance to the history of Florida.
Throughout the state, history buffs can enjoy historic destinations that preserve, embrace and celebrate the bittersweet saga of black Floridians.
From life in the 17th century as escaped slaves in Spanish Florida, to the slavery that ensued after Spain ceded the territory to the United States in 1821, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, Florida is a rich repository of African-American history.
If you want proof of this, visit any of the 10 black heritage sites listed below. A trip is guaranteed to whet your appetite for some cultural soul food.
Dade Battlefield State Historic Site
Off Route 476, west on U.S. 301, Bushnell 352-793-4781
Visiting hours: daily, 8 a.m.-dusk
In 1835, the Second Seminole War, which raged for seven years, began with a battle at this site, where slaves who had escaped from Georgia and the Carolinas joined Seminole Indians in an ambush of U.S. soldiers led by Maj. Francis Dade. In the carnage that followed, Louis Pacheco (also known as Louis Fatio), a black slave who had served as an interpreter for Dade, was one of only four survivors.
Kingsley Plantation State Historic Site
11676 Palmetto Ave., on Fort George Island, Jacksonville 904-251-3537
Visiting hours: 8 a.m.-sunset, daily; guided tours Thursday-Monday
Off highway A1A north of Jacksonville, the Zephaniah Kingsley plantation is the oldest plantation house in Florida. Kingsley settled on Fort George Island in 1803, where he smuggled slaves to slaveholders across the Georgia border. Kingsley married one of his slaves, and left the land and buildings to her when he died in 1843. Remains of slave cabins, service structures, and the master's house are on view at the state's oldest remaining example of an 18th century cotton and sugarcane plantation.
Bethune-Cookman College/Mary McLeod Bethune Home
640 Second Ave., Daytona Beach 904-255-1401 ext. 372
Visiting hours: college, Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Bethune home, by appointment
Mary McLeod Bethune was a renaissance woman for the Jazz Age. Educator, administrator, presidential adviser and civil rights leader, Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in a community of black railroad construction workers, drawing philanthropic support from white northerners. In 1923, the school merged with the Cookman Institute for Boys of Jacksonville, changing its name to Bethune-Cookman College eight years later. Her home is a simple two-story building where she lived from the 1920s until her death in 1955. It contains original furnishings and archives for the Mary McLeod Bethune papers.
Zora Neale Hurston House
1734 School Court St., Fort Pierce
Visiting hours: Private residence, visitors may walk or drive by
Anthropologist, novelist and social commentator Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1903 in Eatonville, Fla., the town that now celebrates her life with an annual festival. However, this one-story, 28-square-foot concrete-block house is where the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God lived when she moved to Fort Pierce in 1957. There she worked as a reporter for the Fort Pierce Chronicle and worked on a book, Herod the Great. She died three years later, nearly penniless, after the manuscript was rejected.
Julee Cottage Museum
210 E. Zaragoza St., Historic Pensacola Village, Pensacola 850-595-5988
Visiting hours: Visitors Center (across the street from Julee Cottage) Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
One of the oldest houses in Pensacola, Julee Cottage was owned by Julee Panton, a "free woman of color," according to records, who made her mark in real estate. Legend has it that Panton purchased the freedom of slaves and helped them start new lives as free men and women. In addition to the house's significance as a piece of Florida African-Americana, the house is holds architectural value as the only surviving Pensacola house reminiscent of the Creole cottages of the French Quarter in New Orleans. It also contains an exhibit on black history in West Florida.
Black Heritage Museum
3301 Coral Way in the Miracle Center Mall, Coconut Grove 305-446-7304
Visiting hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday; 1 p.m.-4 p.m. weekends/holidays
Tribal artifacts from the west coast of Africa and Guinea are displayed here in a permanent collection. The museum also includes a vast collection of black Americana.
Painting entitled "Cypress Logging"
U.S. Post Office, 1600 S. Jefferson St., Perry in Taylor County
This work by Florida artist George Snow Hill renders scenes from the lumber industry in which many African-Americans toiled.
The painting was part of a federal program commission works of art for public buildings. Originally hung in the Old Perry Post Office at 201 E. Green St. in February 1938 and moved to current location in 1987.
520 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel Island in Lee County
Built in 1909-1910 as a Baptist church, the building became the only school for black children of the island in 1927. It remained the only place of education for black children until 1963, when Sanibel Elementary, Lee County's first integrated school, was built. In its latest incarnation, the building houses a gallery of fine art.
Fort Gadsen State Historic Site Six miles southwest of Sumatra, off State Road 65, 24 miles northeast of Appalachicola on U.S. 98 east, then Route 65 north and follow the signs to the park. 904-670-8988
Visiting hours: daily, 24 hours
Known as the "Negro fort," this citadel was built during the War of 1812 by the British and was meant as a tool to recruit runaway slaves and Seminoles to battle the Americans. Once the war concluded, the British abandoned the fort. Some black men left with the British as they were promised freedom, while some 300 blacks and Indians holed up in the fort under the leadership of a black fugitive named Garson and a Choctaw chief. Irate at the notion of a community of defiant blacks, white slave owners called on the U.S. government to help them recapture their runaway slaves. On June 27, 1816, under the orders of President Andrew Jackson, the fort was attacked and destroyed. Only 50 of the 320 settlers survived. Today the state park still contains a network of trenches as well as the earthen outlines of the old fort.
Olustee Battlefield Historic Site
15 miles east of Lake City and two miles east of Olustee on U.S. 90 in Baker County. 904-752-3866
On this site, 5,500 Union troops, including three African-American infantry regiments, confronted 5,200 Confederate troops in Florida's major Civil War battle. The victory went to the Confederate army. The Union lost 1,861 men, while the rebels lost 946. Today, signs along the trail mark important facts about the battle, a visitor's center offers information about the Confederate victory, and each February, more than 1,000 people re-enact the skirmish.
Darryl E. Owens is a father of two and a staff writer for the Orlando Sentinel.