In 1911, housing was built for the railroad and port workers at the south end of the island. Many of the workers were black, and a small community sprang up.
After the opening of the Gasparilla Inn the following year, the need for housing for black employees of the Inn led the railroad company (which built the Inn) to build a neighborhood for blacks in Boca Grande. The community was located from Third Street to the north side of First Street. It was a true neighborhood, with two churches, a barbershop and the requisite juke joint. It was the primary black community on the island until 1948, when the Boca Grande Land Company sold the property to Sunset Realty.
The community was moved in 1956. For over 40 years, it was the center of black life on the island.
On the south end of the island, there were two communities, separated by a road. On one side, the white port workers lived, on the other, the black port workers.
Florence remembers that dividing road was also where the children of the two communities came together.
“After school, we would all run out there to play together,” she said. “We didn’t even think of it at the time, that the little black girls and the little white girls never went to each other’s neighborhoods.”
It wasn’t until Florence left the island that she experienced overt racism.
“Here in town, Fugate’s had a section where we could sit and have a soda or ice cream,” Florence recalled. “Mr. Fugate knew that we had to walk more then two miles to get to town, and he was a very kind man and provided us a place to rest.”
In Arcadia, then one of the largest towns in southern Florida, it was different.
“I walked into the drugstore there in town,” said Florence. “Just like I would walk into Fugate’s. The lady behind the counter asked what I wanted, and when I told her that I wanted some ice cream, she told me that I had to go outside.”
While it was her first experience with the attitudes of the outside world, it wasn’t her last. Thanks to the fairy godmother of the island, Louise duPont Crowninshield, after Florence left the little wooden schoolhouse she was able to continue her education off-island.
And thanks to the education that she received, Florence was able to go on and help others. She spent many years in the Immokalee school system, as a counselor and eventually as principal.
Though her life has taken her away from the island of her birth, Florence will always take with her the memories of the wealth that she grew up with.
“We had everything that we wanted on this island,” she said. “Every morning I woke up and looked out over the water and wondered what was out there. But we were blessed on the island.”
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