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March 4, 1893
Post by guest contributor Julian C. Chambliss, Chair and Associate Professor of History and Cooodinator of Africa and African American Studies Program at Rollins College.
The article “From Hon J. R. Mizell—The Judge Knows and He Tells What He Knows” from the Winter Park Advocate is an artifact from a forgotten chapter of the history of Winter Park, Florida. Transcribed as part of the Advocate Recovered, a digital pedagogical project that uses undergraduate researchers to transcribed a historic black newspaper, this article is one of many that illuminates life in 1890s Florida. The Advocate is also a window on a broad history of “New South” transformation crucial to southern historiography. Known as a counterpoint to the narrative of mass tourism linked to Disney in Central Florida today, Winter Park’s New South history highlights interlocking narratives of race, politics, and power in the late nineteenth century.
Central Florida communities like Winter Park were testaments to the power of town planning and marketing in the late nineteenth century. As Hugh Bartling explained, Winter Park “presented not only as a built environment but also as a decidedly socio-cultural one. This socio-cultural identity is expressed both implicitly and explicitly.”85 Indeed, an examination of Winter Park highlights how race and community intersect in unexpected ways. Disrupting our traditional narrative of the period, African-American residents in Winter Park demonstrated agency and ambition in the midst of a challenging political landscape to become key political actors in Winter Park (click to view transcribed article).
In 1881, Oliver Everett Chapman and Loring A. Chase purchased 600 acres bordering Lakes Maitland and Osceola. As the Winter Park Land Company, the new company’s goal was to develop a beautiful residential community of winter homes for wealthy Northerners. In 1882, the first building, a train station was dedicated. Between 1881 and 1885, Chapman and Chase developed the new town, and much of that development depended on crafting a vision of community that could entice potential residents. The brochure that sold Winter Park noted the area’s natural beauty and pointed out that the new town was located just four miles from the county seat. Chase and Chapman lauded the area’s natural beauty, but they also made it clear there was economic opportunity in the new settlement.
In this period rampant land speculation sparked building booms in Sanford, Orlando, and Kissimmee as the railroad system extended along the east and west coast. Advertisements for the state touted the fortune to be made, and Winter Park developers hoped to entice wealthy investors to buy land, erect homes, and plant groves. Whatever the idealism linked to farming, the developers knew new residents would not be doing the work. Indeed, the same brochure that touted the amazing opportunities also made it clear a ready-made workforce of African-American laborers would be in the nearby settlement of Hannibal Square.
The sale brochure showing “negro lots” across the railroad tracks demonstrated to prospective buyers that the labor force needed to make Winter Park a success was close at hand. The lots, eighty-four 50-square-foot parcels, were considerably smaller than the 150- to 300-foot “Lake Front” and “Cottage” lots marketed to white investors. Nonetheless those lots represented a unique opportunity for African Americans to purchase land in a region rapidly becoming hostile to African-American economic and political autonomy. Hannibal Square, the named chosen for the black community, was described in sales materials as space with lots that would be sold to “negro families of good character, who can be depended upon for work in the family and in the grove.”86
The Winter Park Land Company’s decision to recruit African Americans tied black labor and white ambition for the new community together. By offering lots to African-American settlers, the town planners create a pattern of black and white property ownership. This opportunity came as African Americans across the state saw the consequences of Democrats’ control of the state politics erode their rights. By 1885 Democrats moved to institutionalize white control by amending the state constitution. Revising the 1868 version, the new constitution allowed poll taxes and other regressive policies that undercut African-American rights. The opportunity offered by Chase and Chapman gave black residents in Winter Park the means to achieve success in the midst of this declining landscape. Chase and Chapman’s actions helped this process. As part of the obligation for new black residents, they were required to build a home on their new lot. Thus, African Americans were the largest segment of the community’s year-round residents.
In 1886, Chase pushed ahead with plans to incorporate Winter Park. Between 1881 and 1886, residents in Winter Park were technically part of nearby Maitland.87 As Chase began organizing citizens to pursue incorporation, concerns about the moral stability of the community added to the dialogue around promoting prosperity. Early in the decade the question of temperance had risen to the forefront of local politics. While Maitland, Florida, the nearest municipality, was a “wet” community, elements in Winter Park wished for it to be a “dry” community. While proponents on both sides of the issue campaigned, two factors helped pushed Winter Park firmly into the “dry” camp. First, the Congregational Association held its annual meeting in 1885 and voted to support the establishment of a college. Alonzo Rollins donated land and cash to ensure the city would be home for a new institution of higher education.88 Second, African Americans stated firmly they were in favor of Winter Park being a “dry” community. In doing so they repudiated charges they might be “easily influenced” to support the wet position.89
As Winter Park residents organized to pursue incorporation, debate between those for and against the measure emerged around the question of Hannibal Square’s inclusion within the new town’s boundary. There were 297 black residents in Winter Park, 64 of whom were registered Republican voters.90 At the same time, of the 203 white residents only 47 were registered Democrat voters. In order to reach the quorum needed to vote for incorporation, black voters were needed. Despite this reality, whites attempted to dissuade African American voters from participating. Indeed, the first attempt at a vote failed to reach the necessary number of voters. After rallying supporters, on October 12, 1887, Gus C. Henderson, the future founder of the Winter Park Advocate (the Advocate does not start publication until 1889), led a group of black voters to attend the town meeting to vote in favor of incorporation.
The measure passed and the newly incorporated town included Hannibal Square. The newly elected town government included two African-American aldermen, Walter B. Simpson and Frank R. Israel. Simpson and Israel served effectively on the town council, voting on several measures and attending meetings regularly. Based on the municipal records, there was little to distinguish their service from their white counterparts.91 Nonetheless, by March 1893 several residents petitioned the Florida state legislature to redraw the town boundary. It is this effort that Judge J. R. Mizell is reacting to in the post from the Advocate Recovered.
On May 29, 1893, the legislature passed a bill redrawing Winter Park’s town boundary omitting Hannibal Square and ordered new town elections within thirty days. No longer a part of the community, Hannibal Square would remain outside the town boundary until 1923. While not surprising in many ways, this local history sheds another light on the aggressive effort to exclude African Americans from opportunity across the South after Reconstruction. Whatever their adaptations, the challenge offered by white opposition was ever present. In this dynamic landscape, black autonomy had limits that could not be overcome by goodwill or hard work. Seen in this context, the Winter Park story makes clear the legacy of racism central to the creation of the New South.