Florida was the frontier between the southern U.S. and the Caribbean. Depending on the year and the political situation, African-Americans first brought to the New World as slaves, fought to live and be free. In Spanish Florida, African Americans could be free. Later however, in English Florida and later the United States, slave owners could not tolerate a place nearby where blacks could live free, own property and carry weapons. Before becoming a state, blacks could escape to Spanish held Islands. Later former slaves in the Bahamas could escape to Florida. One thing , until the Emancepation Proclamation of 1863, that they could not do was go north. Even before Florida became a state in blacks had intermarried with Europeans and Indians throughout The Caribbean and Florida. Many of the blacks were translators for the U.S. Army and Seminole. During the Seminole Wars, some African Americans agreed to be removed to the Indian Territories. Unfortunately, many were taken in Arkansas on the way and returned to slavery.
Blacks represented the largest segment of Florida's population before the war. Immediately after, the remaining white inhabitants ,as well as the flood of poor whites from Alabama ad Georgia to our area, left south Florida without a labor force. The black diaspora had the former slaves immigrating north to industrial cities. When phosphate was discovered along the Peace River, after 1887, thousands of African-Americans were recruited to work the mines. They eventually built homes, churches and schools. Soon however, the mining companies disappeared, along with their livelihood.
Immediately, after the Civil War African -Americans in Florida were elected to local, state governments and even the U.S. Congress. They had a great presence on the south Atlantic Coast. In Charlotte County, then Desoto and in Polk County, free , educated and independent African-Americans bought property, practiced their trade and started churches and social oganizations. All good but not equal. Florida's Jim Crow laws lasted till 1964.
Such was the fortunate lives of two gentlemen with the name of Brown. In Punta Gorda, there was George Brown who came into prominence as the superintendent of properties held by the Desoto Phosphate Mining Company in Liverpool. George went to college and immigrated to the area from Charleston South Carolina, where they had just undergone a phosphate mining boom. Before his passing in 1951, George Brown had helped to form the African Methodist Church in Cleveland, as well as donated property to an all-black Masonic Lodge in Punta Gorda on the SW corner of Marion and Nesbit Streets.
Further up the Peace River, in the new town of Bartow, former slave, Laurence B. Brown purchased properties, built beautiful homes and became a respected leader in the community. Brown, whose mother was Native-American came to live with him. Like George Brown, Laurence was very active with the Mt. Giboa Missionary Church there.
The Brown's stories were the exception to the norm. African-Americans were looked down on and when the Union army left Florida, the African-Americans who remained in Florida were again subjugated and harassed for another hundred years.
As of the 2010 Census, African-Americans represent only 5.68 % of the Charlotte County population
African-American couple posing for a photo in a studio in Key West 1900
When Florida became a state in everyone with the exception of the Seminole were newly arrived immigrants. As with all the new states, the U.S. Government created incentives for people to move here, homestead and farm. The majority of the new white settlers were from neighboring southern states were they could not afford land. Throughout Florida were Indian Forts, that attempted to provide some protection for the new settlers.The area was already populated by non-whites. These newcomers were very outnumbered.
The Indians now settled in Florida, already had their lands in the south taken from them from the waves of European immigrants to the U.S in the 1800s. The federal government, once again, broke all treaties and began the long process of Indian removal from Florida. This sparked armed resistance an the longest, bloodiest and most costly Indian wars in U.S. History. By the 1840s, what is now Charlotte County was in the thick of the bloody battle for land on the Peace River.
The battle fr the Peace River had to do with the interest of the cattle ranchers. Cattle was king, not cotton. Cattle ranching required large tracts of grazing land and sources of water. The cattle industry also need the navigational waters of the Peace River and a port at its mouth in Punta Gorda. There were farmers also but cattle men ruled the day. The Indian lands in 1857 encompassed all lands from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf Coast and the southern banks of the Peace River all the way to the Ten Thousand Islands. By settling in the Indian lands, whites invited attacks. Two incidents ere reported in Charlotte County in 1856. Two oystermen were attacked in the Charlotte Harbor at night, killed and there boat set on fire. Further north on the Peace River, a wagon train carrying supplies to the militia killing two men and a boy. The third of the Seminole wars played out in south Florida.
The important date was 1870, the cattle barons moved their homes and herds to Fort Ogden, just north of Punta Gorda. The lower Peace River and the new cattle wharf at Punta Gorda allowed them to ship their cattle to meet the demands for beef from Havana. Fort Ogden grew to a city of 500 people, overnight. Simultaneously poor whites from Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida flooded into the area to farm and start a new life. The area continued to grow when the railroad came. Again people came in grat numbers. Dozens of new towns sprang up on the rail line, promising a new era of properity by 1900.