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History of African Americans in Florida

African Americans are people who are either citizens or residents of the United States of America whose ancestors came from one of the black populations that inhabit the African continent. American history tabulates a series of atrocities and degradations committed against African Americans by their white counterparts, perpetrated under cover of one of the worst systems that have plagued human civilization: slavery. While this evil practice prevailed all over the United States before 1865, it was very less in the north but rampant all over the south, of which Florida is a part.

Arrival of First African Americans to Florida

The Spaniards were responsible for bringing the first African Americans to Florida. The Spaniards, who had earlier ejected the French from the area, founded the first permanent European settlement in North America – called St. Augustine – in Florida in 1565. The first African Americans landed in St. Augustine in 1581 ( They were largely instrumental in “enabling Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez to build St. Augustine” (McCarthy & Jones, 144). The slaves were particularly used heavily in the building of forts in the area such as the Castillo de San Marcos that was built in St. Augustine between 1672 and 1695. As news of the white Floridians’ relatively humane treatment of African American slaves {an example of this was the setting up of Fort Mose, a free black settlement} ( spread to other parts of the South, African Americans from other Southern parts, notably Georgia and South Carolina “began arriving in North Florida from 1687” onwards (McCarthy et al., 13).

African Americans in Florida After Statehood

The transfer of Florida to the U.S by Spain by the terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1821 was followed by the granting of statehood to Florida by U.S Congress on March 3, 1845. This development precipitated an increase in the growth of plantations in Florida where African American slaves were extensively used ( Many white Florida farmers who held slaves “thought that slavery was essential to produce crops to prop up the Floridian economy” (McCarthy et al., 30). The official number of African Americans in Florida, as recorded by the 1860 census, was 63,000 out of which 62,000 were slaves and 1,000 were free. However, due to the suppressive laws of those days, the so-called ‘free’ African Americans had very little freedom in reality. Even though the African Americans were made to labor in cotton plantations, the modes of slavery were not standard but different in various parts of Florida. The ‘gang system’ was used in north and central Florida where slaves were required to work from sunrise to sunset. In the east and west Florida the ‘task system’ was in operation where slaves were required to do a specified daily work quota, and any spare time after that was considered the slaves’ free time. Many plantations all over Florida opted to use both systems (Florida Department of State).

African American Floridians During the Civil War

When the Civil War erupted on April 12, 1861, the majority of African Americans in Florida had no alternative but to be in favor of the Confederacy. Many were forced to join the war as personal attendants of white Confederate officers. Others were forced to work in labor projects like constructing forts and transport networks. The rest continued working in Floridian plantations. Due to the general disorganization, several African American slaves took the chance of fleeing to areas in Florida {like Fernandina and Jacksonville in the North West} that were captured by the Union. Some of them lived there as refugees while others chose to fight against the Confederacy. It is believed that about 1,000 African American Floridians enlisted in the Union army (Florida Department of State). Civil War records indicate that the Union army used African American regiments for the first time during military action in regions along the Georgia/Florida coast in 1862 ( Many African American Floridians also joined the Union navy and played a particularly significant role in Union naval military raids that targeted salt-making works along Florida’s Gulf Coast {salt was very essential to preserve vitally needed beef and pork for the Confederate army} where they served as scouts due to their expert knowledge of local areas (Florida Department of State).

As the Civil War progressed, Union control over Florida’s coastal forts and towns increased, and so did the presence of the Union army in those areas. A significant part of this army comprised African American Floridians. During 1863 and 1864, more and more African American regiments were deployed in Union military action in Florida, engaging Confederate forces at places like Marianna, Gainesville, Fort Myers and Natural Bridge (Florida Department of State). The fiercest fighting took place in the “Battle of Olustee in north Florida where Union troops, including many African American Floridians, fought Confederate troops in 1864” (McCarthy et al., 136).

African Americans in Florida During Post-civil War Years

The Civil War ended in 1865 with victory for the Union. African Americans in Florida jubilantly celebrated Emancipation Day on May 12 that year as they at last tasted freedom from slavery. A special Negro National Anthem entitled “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was composed by African Americans James and Rosamond Johnson ( When the slaves were freed, “many of them remained in Florida rather than go north to look for work” (McCarthy et al., 32). The post-Civil War period in Florida was marked by a series of projects aimed at benefitting African Americans. The first was the establishment of the Brown Theological Institute {later renamed Edward Waters College} in 1866 whose task was to impart education to the newly freed African American slaves. The second was the establishment of Florida A&M University as State Normal College for Colored Students in 1887. The third was the establishment of the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes in 1905 (

The All-Black Town of Eatonville

Post-war reconstruction in favor of African Americans witnessed a unique event in 1887. On August 15 that year, 27 African American Floridians led by Joseph E. Clark {who all lived within the limits of a proposed Town of Eatonville in Orange County, Florida} held a meeting in a building donated to African Americans by Lewis Lawrence named Oddfellows Hall. They all voted to incorporate the municipality of Eatonville (Town of Eatonville). The 27 pioneers then followed up their project vigorously by “driving around from town to town, telling people about Eatonville and drumming up [African American] citizens to move there” (Hurston, 48). The response of African American Floridians was tremendous. “By five o’clock, the town was full of every kind of vehicle and swarming with people” (Hurston, 53). Today, Eatonville holds the distinction of being the oldest town in the U.S that was “all-black, run and governed by black people” (Hurston, Front Matter).

African American Floridians in Civil Rights Movement

Florida had its first taste of racial violence in January 1923 which culminated “in the total ruin of Rosewood town on the Gulf Coast of Florida” (McCarthy et al., 83) whose population was mainly African American. Three decades later African American Floridians engaged in a protest called the Tallahassee bus boycott in 1954, calling for dismantling the segregation policy practised by Florida’s public transport system; it was among the first public protests that erupted in the U.S under the banner of the Civil Rights movement. African American Floridians next participated in the St. Augustine Race Riots in 1964 that involved demonstrations by both blacks and whites. It is widely believed that “the publicity caused by civil rights protests in St. Augustine, including the arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did much to influence Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act” (McCarthy et al., 142). The Civil Rights movement ended successfully in 1968, allowing African Americans the luxury to “bask in freedom” (Hurston, 110) while enjoying full civil rights and equality in the eyes of the law.

African Americans in Floridians After 1968

African Americans in Florida as well as in other parts of the U.S have lived a normal life free from racial discrimination since 1968. Many of them have flourished all over the country. Some famous names include Condoleezza Rice {politician}, Bill Cosby {actor}, Michael Jordan {basketball}, Muhammad Ali {boxing}, Valerie Briscoe-Hooks {athlete} and Mae Jemison {astronaut}. Many African American Floridians have also proved their excellence on the national and international stage. Some of them are Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder member of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company (McCarthy et al., 64), Zora Neale Hurston, author of Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Mules & Men (, Joseph W. Hatchett, Florida’s first African American Supreme Court judge (McCarthy et al., 124), David D. Deacon Jones, one of the best defensive American professional football player (Town of Eatonville), and Leander Shaw, Chief Justice of Florida Supreme Court (McCarthy et al., 126). Last but not least, one must not forget Barack Obama, who may not have been born in Florida {he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii}, but has made all African Americans in the U.S proud by becoming the first African American President of the U.S.


“About Eatonville”. Town of Eatonville. (N.d). 2009. Web.

“African American Floridians.” Florida Department of State. (N.d). 2009. Web.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” New York: Harper Collins. 2000.

McCarthy, Kevin M. & Jones, Maxine D. “African Americans in Florida: An Illustrated History.” Sarasota (Florida): Pineapple Press. 1993.

“Timeline.” (N.d). 2009. Web.


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