Bringing Our Hidden Past to Light

By Doug Alderson

Emancipation Day Celebration hosted by the John G. Riley Museum and Museum of Florida History

Emancipation Day Celebration hosted by the John G. Riley Museum and Museum of Florida History

Some of Tallahassee-Leon County’s history is not readily apparent and it begins with the antebellum period when the plantation-driven economy was dependent upon enslaved people of African descent. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, enslaved people in the county exceeded 9,000, outnumbering white people by almost three to one. The city had five slave auctioneers and a glance at any newspaper of the times had several ads for slave auctions along with rewards offered for runaways.  

To better grasp the life of an enslaved house servant before the Civil War, one need only visit the Goodwood Museum & Gardens off Miccosukee Road. A tour of the main house, completed in the 1840s by the Croom family using mostly enslaved labor, portrays opulence, art, and craftsmanship. There are eight marble fireplaces, frescoed ceilings, fine furniture, a mahogany staircase, imported china and glassware, elaborate textiles, a library of vintage books, European landscape paintings, and a broad veranda. But many of the enslaved servants who worked in the house are now recognized—Lucy Carter, Henrietta Williams, Emily Hall. Where possible throughout the museum, identities have been given to those historical figures who once only existed in shadows. 

A descent into the clammy, low basement is chilling in its contrast with the rest of the house. This is where enslaved servants kept food warm. A dimly lit cement staircase enabled them to unobtrusively access the main and second floors to bring food, clear dishes, empty chamber pots, clean rooms, care for children, and meet any number of other demands of their owners at all hours. Goodwood tours and exhibits seek to portray the starkly different lives of these two groups of people who lived on the plantation. The Grove, another prominent antebellum building and museum in Tallahassee, was built with enslaved labor and the museum recognizes and interprets the contributions of its enslaved workers. 

Enslaved field hands on plantations had the most physically challenging existence. “The negroes commence labor by daylight in the morning, and, excepting the ploughboys, who must feed and rest their horses, do not leave the field till dark in the evening,” wrote abolitionist minister Amos Dresser in 1836 about the treatment of slaves around Tallahassee. “They carry with them corn-meal wet with water, and at noon build a fire on the ground and bake it in the ashes. After having finished their field labors, they are occupied till nine or ten o’clock in doing chars, such as grinding corn, (as all the corn in the vicinity is ground by hand) chopping wood, taking care of the horses, mules, etc., and a thousand things necessary to be done on a large plantation.” Sundays generally allowed for more free time along with special occasions such as weddings, Fourth of July, and Christmas.

A strict slave code gave owners complete control, and punishments were sometimes meted out in the public square. Slave codes controlled the movement and religious practices of enslaved people and forbade them to read and write and to possess arms. A small number of free blacks lived in Tallahassee-Leon County during the antebellum period, the most notable being Antonio Proctor and his son, George. Antonio had served as a renowned Native American interpreter, trusted by both sides, while George became a skilled builder. Some of the buildings George Proctor constructed, such as the Tallahassee Garden Club headquarters, still stand.

For Leon County’s black residents, the end of the Civil War was one of jubilation and new beginning. While bedraggled survivors of the Confederate army made their way home from battlefields and prison camps, and runaways and deserters came out from hiding, Union Brigadier General Edward McCook read Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from the steps of the Knott House on May 20th, 1865. The event is now recreated every year with much fanfare.

A newly formed federal Freedmen’s Bureau provided assistance to former slaves and poor whites and the military began enforcing new employment and sharecropping agreements with area planters. Although martial law had to be imposed on and off during the ensuing months and years, black schools, hospitals, churches, and businesses were established, and the right to vote was granted to black men. The Union Bank, originally on the west side of Adams Street between College and Park avenues and now on Apalachee Parkway just below the capitol, became a freedman’s bank for emancipated slaves in the early 1870s. It is Florida’s oldest surviving bank building and is now an African American museum.

With African American minister James Page becoming Leon County Voter Registrar in 1867, blacks began registering to vote in large numbers, outnumbering white voters. The following year, 1868, marked a new milestone for African American political advancement in Leon County. The minister Charles H. Pearce was elected to the Florida Senate. Robert Livingston, Robert Cox, Noah Graham, and Richard Wells were elected to the Florida House. Jonathan Gibbs was elected to the Tallahassee City Council and was also the first African American in the Florida Cabinet, serving as Secretary of State and then Superintendent of Public Instruction. John Wallace was the first black person elected as Leon County constable. He would go on to win a seat in the Florida House in 1871 and the Florida Senate in 1875. John Proctor also served in both the House and Senate. Charles Rollins served on the Leon County Commission and then in the Florida House. Philip DeCoursey was the first African American Leon County sheriff.

In 1876, Samuel C. Watkins briefly served as acting mayor of the capital city, making him Tallahassee’s first African American mayor. Several other African Americans served on the city council and Leon County Commission and there were African American judges, postmasters, and delegates to Republican Conventions. Then, in 1877, the Union occupation ended. Federal protections began to erode and the Florida Constitution of 1885 put white democrats back in power. Poll taxes and other intimidation measures were instigated to limit the black vote. Racial segregation in schools became mandatory and it became “forever prohibited” for a white person to marry a black person or someone “of negro descent to the fourth generation.” The 1885 Constitution remained in effect until 1968.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), originally organized in Tennessee, spread to Florida with the goal of restoring and preserving white supremacy and protecting “the inviolability of white women.” From behind white hooded masks, they terrorized blacks and white sympathizers. A federal crackdown in 1871 sent the group underground, but they publicly resurfaced in 1915. Their intimidation and harassment would persist for decades.

 It would be nearly a century before African Americans were again elected or appointed to public office. Thus, the passage of the 1885 Constitution marked the end of what many consider to be the first Civil Rights Movement in Leon County, and the beginning of strict segregation under Jim Crow.

It was rare for black business owners to flourish under Jim Crow, but John Riley managed to do so. His house on Jefferson Street was modest for someone with wealth. No white columns. No grand vista from the porch or long approach drive. It was and is a simple two-story wood frame home near where Jefferson Street meets South Meridian. Riley was Florida’s first African American to earn a teacher’s certificate and became the founding principal of Lincoln High School, the first public high school for African Americans in Tallahassee-Leon County. During the post-Reconstruction period, John Riley showed how African Americans could still advance and achieve greatness.

With his modest teacher’s salary, Riley smartly invested in downtown real estate. He flipped several properties and eventually owned and rented multiple homes in Smokey Hollow, an African American community of shotgun houses and black-owned businesses that spanned several blocks just east of the capitol. Wally Amos, founder of Famous Amos Cookies, grew up here. Riley’s house served as a social center for the community because it was large enough to entertain. But John Riley was more than just a businessman. He was an activist, working as Secretary for the Florida NAACP.

Tallahassee-Leon County’s best-known black community has always been Frenchtown, a thriving mecca for black businesses and music since Emancipation. “Some say Frenchtown was at its finest in the days where there was a restaurant on every corner and a wide choice of nightclubs where patrons were treated to performances by some of the nation’s best entertainers,” wrote Julianne Hare in Historic Frenchtown. “New York had Harlem and Tallahassee had Frenchtown. Louis Armstrong came to town. Over the years, performers from Little Milton to Little Richard—including Cab Calloway, Al Green, and Ray Charles—entertained enthusiastic crowds. Lou Rawls crooned more than one time.” Beginning in the 1970s, Frenchtown experienced a downturn, but current efforts are focused on revitalizing historic neighborhoods and businesses.

Before the Civil War, enslaved and free African Americans were allowed to worship in many of Tallahassee-Leon County’s early churches, but they sat separate from whites, often in balconies. After Emancipation, many branched off to form their own churches, sometimes beginning with brush arbors until actual church buildings could be built. But the first separate African American church in Leon County was established before the Civil War, the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church. Situated south of Tallahassee at Bel Air in 1850 by James Page on cotton plantation property belonging to John Parkhill, this was the first organized black church in Florida. Defying the law, Parkhill had taught Page, an enslaved man, to read and write and when Page said he felt a calling from God to preach, Parkhill encouraged him and allowed him to travel to other plantations to preach. Page was Florida’s first African American ordained Baptist minister, and he would go on to found other Baptist congregations and schools. 

The Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church was rebuilt by the congregation in 1937 using many of the original timbers. When abandoned, the old church building was moved to the Tallahassee Museum and renovated by Florida A&M University (FAMU) students. Entering the historic wooden country church, it is easy to imagine Sunday services that once occurred here—spirited singing, clapping hands, swaying bodies, a strong voice preaching the gospel, and “Amens” heard among the congregation. 

Another Tallahassee-Leon County church that traces its roots back to Father James Page is the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on the edge of Frenchtown. Reverend Page served as its first pastor from 1870 until his death in 1883. Other leaders of the church have included Civil Rights leader Reverend C.K. Steele, Reverend Herbert Alexander, and the current pastor, the Reverend Dr. R. B. Holmes, Jr. Dr. Holmes was awarded a Lifetime Leadership Award by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce in 2016. The church’s outreach in Leon County has included schools, a restaurant, a counseling center, a strip mall, a senior citizens’ residence, and the Carolina Oaks subdivision for first-time homeowners. An urgent care center and additional homes are currently being built. 

One of the most colorful members of Trinity United Methodist Church in the 1800s was Aunt Memory Adams. Born into slavery, she continued to attend Trinity after the Civil War and carried her hearth broom, umbrella, and satchel wherever she went. She used the broom to sweep the tracks at street corners to repel evil spirits. In 1893, determined to visit the World’s Fair in Chicago for her first trip out of the area, she raised enough money by selling picture postcards of herself. She attended as a guest of the Florida Commissioner, church trustee Judge J.T. Bernard. Her motivation for attending? “I came to see how man have used the wisdom God have given him.”

For black Americans in Tallahassee-Leon County and elsewhere, churches have always been a source of solace, inspiration, and resilience. They helped people persevere through slavery, Jim Crow, and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

Besides the church, another foundation for the black community has been Florida A&M University, established in 1887, with 15 students and two instructors. It would become one of the pre-eminent historically black universities in the country. Notable alumni include Carrie Meek, the first African American elected to Congress representing Florida since Reconstruction. Football player Bob Hayes, known as the fastest human on earth in the 1960s, was elected to the pro football hall of fame in 2009. He is the only athlete to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring. 

In 1956, renowned tennis player Althea Gibson was the first African American to win a Grand Slam title. Then, in the 1960s, she became the first African American to compete on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour. 

FAMU students were heavily involved with area Civil Rights struggles, beginning with the Tallahassee bus boycott of 1956 when students Carrie Patterson and Wilhelmina Jakes refused to give up their seats on a city bus. Their arrests sparked a months-long boycott that ended in a favorable U.S. Supreme Court decision. This was followed by years of “sit-ins” and “jail-ins” in Tallahassee to protest segregated lunch counters and theaters.  In 1970, FAMU students were also integral in defeating a proposal to merge FSU with FAMU.

The first locally elected black public officials since Reconstruction included James Ford, who became mayor of Tallahassee in 1972 and the first elected black mayor of a United States capital city. Dot Inman-Johnson was the first black woman elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 1986, serving as the first black woman mayor for two terms, in 1989 and 1993. In 1990, Anita Davis was the first black woman elected to the Leon County Commission. She served for six years before leaving the commission to run for Congress. She chaired the commission in 1993-94.   

Regarding the arts, acclaimed jazz musicians Julian “Cannonball” and Nathaniel “Nat” Adderley honed their talents in Tallahassee in the early 1940s after their parents began teaching at FAMU. In January 2023, a ceremony honoring the brothers was held for the newly named Adderley Amphitheater at Cascades Park. 

Another iconic black musician is George Clinton who calls Tallahassee-Leon County home. He is considered the king of funk music and boasts five hit number one singles on the R&B charts. And let’s not forget the incomparable FAMU Marching “100.”  They were selected to be the official United States representative at the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution during France’s Bastille Day Parade. The band has been emulated by marching bands across the country. These are just a few of Leon County’s black history highlights. To learn more, visit the Riley Center/Museum of African American History & Culture on Jefferson Street in downtown Tallahassee, and the Carrie Meek and James N. Eaton Sr., Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum on the FAMU campus. There is also the Tallahassee Museum in southwest Tallahassee, the Civil Rights Memorial at Cascades Memorial Plaza, and the Civil Rights Heritage Walk on the corner of East Jefferson Street and Monroe Street. Goodwood Museum & Gardens provides interpretation about antebellum slavery and the Grove Museum also chronicles the contributions of enslaved persons and the Civil Rights Movement.

Doug Alderson is a Tallahassee-Leon County Bicentennial content provider for Visit Tallahassee and the Chair of the Bicentennial History Task Force. He is also the author of several award-winning books about Florida history and natural history.