In a detailed presentation that packed the Raney House with a rapt audience Feb. 16, local historian Pam Richardson offered a sweeping history of the Hill, the longtime African-American neighborhood of Apalachicola she has painstakingly researched over the last several years.
Complete with an 82-panel Power Point presentation, that included at least twice that many historic photographs, Richardson offered “An Armchair Tour of the Hill,” part of a project she first debuted a few years ago when she compiled the narrative for a “Walk the Hill” audio tour funded by the Florida Humanities Council. (Visit FLStories.org to download that app)
Richardson began her presentation by reaching back into the early 19th century, when the growth of Apalachicola as a trading port was made possible by slaves working cotton plantations to the north and on the waterfront along the river.
Citing the work of Harry P. Owens, in his doctoral dissertation “Apalachicola Before 1861,” Richardson noted how the black population of Apalachicola in the 1840 census, which was 22 percent, grew to 24 percent by 1850, whien the city had 1,562 inhabitants. By 1860, blacks made up 28 percent of the population, with the 520 slaves living in Apalachicola owned by 65 white men. By 1870, blacks were 38 percent of the town’s population, with Thomas Orman, owner of a successful cotton shipping business, the largest slave owner in town.
“Exports from Apalachicola for the first six months of 1832 included 16,000 bales of cotton, 491,000 feet of lumber and 40,000 slaves,” wrote Dorothy Dodd, in her essay “Apalachicola: Antebellum Cotton Port.” Dodd, who held degrees from Florida State, Columbia University and the University of Chicago, served in 1941 as the first archivist of the state of Florida.
Richardson noted in her review of early local ordinances that laws required a pass be issued that had to specify the exact location black person was allowed to go, with this 1839 ordinance reinstated every year up to the Civil War.
Blacks found without passes by patrols of white men outside their homes after 9 p.m. could be punished by up to 30 lashes with a switch or rawhide. Any noisy, drunken, disorderly or riotous “free person of color,” if convicted by the mayor, could receive up to 39 lashes or a fine of up to $20.
In 1849, Richardson said, slaves used in public places (porters, laborers, launderers) had to be registered by their masters and made to wear badges showing their registration numbers. Boats with free blacks aboard had to anchor five miles away from the city, and could not communicate with crews of other vessels.
Following the war, when the cotton business was diverted to railroad towns further north, the city’s lumber industry took off, with a cypress milling boom in the 1880s and lumber an important export through the 1930s, she said.
With jobs plentiful at the town’s many mills, the African-American population went from 25 to 50 percent between 1860 and 1910. “Black men worked in the mills, in the swamp harvesting logs, on the river running logs to the mill, and in the forests collecting sap to be made into turpentine,” Richardson said.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the seafood industry grew, with the introduction of canneries that lined the waterfront. “As the lumber industry faded, more and more African-Americans, including women, found work shucking oysters, heading shrimp and picking meat out of crabs,” she said.
With the turn of the century, women on the Hill worked primarily as cooks, maids and nannies for white people and as laundresses, taking in laundry at home, Richardson said. “Until well into the 1950s, it was common to see women stirring laundry in big galvanized tubs set over smoldering fires in their backyards,” she said. “They also made their own soap with lye and hog fat.”
Richardson shared several photos, both historic and contemporary, of the shotgun homes, the most popular form of workforce housing throughout the South from the end of the Civil War until about 1925. She said many were built during the boom among the city’s black population, and over the years, burned or collapsed.
Richardson offered a look at the Odd Fellows Hall, on Sixth Street between Avenues H and I, that housed a black fraternal organization that featured businesses downstairs, and meeting room upstairs, even a roller skating rink inside for a while. She said that during the construction of the Gorrie bridge in the 1930s, when there were many extra men in town, regular dances were held here.
She also shared how black sawmill workers met in the hall in Jan. 1890 and planned a strike for higher wages, payable not in scrip but in real money, for a 10-hour day. The strike, which was joined by women in support of their husbands, sons and fathers, did not result in any deaths, but required the governor to send in troops from Pensacola. Richardson said leaders of the strike were jailed for three months before a grand jury released them.
Richardson detailed a busy, thriving self-sufficient Hill community, that by the mid-1900s featured nine grocery stores, a movie theater, barber shops and beauty salons, two taxi services, clothing store, several stores to buy ice cream and candy, gas station, a handful of clubs where people could eat, drink and dance, two funeral homes, a pool hall, dry cleaner and oyster shucking house, as well as men’s and women’s organizations and at least two literary societies.
Richardson described a densely populated neighborhood, where extended families could walk to work, or to the store, school and church. “Everyone had vegetable gardens and often a pig or two,” she said, describing an area rich with citrus, mulberry, hickory and pecan trees, that remained a vibrant community up until the end of the 20th century, when St. Joe Paper Company closed its doors.
She also documented the growth of churches on the Hill, which started in the years after the Civil War, since blacks went to church with their white owners up until then, and sat in their own section of the church.
In 1866, St. Paul AME became the first black church, beginning in a local blacksmith’s shop. The first church was replaced, and a second one burned, so the current Gothic Revival style edifice was born between 1913-1921, complete with stained glass windows custom made in Germany.
Richardson’s work on the history of the Hill was not limited to research in books, with much of what she shared based on her gathering of first-hand accounts from longtime Apalachicola families. She shared details of tours she took with members of the Rhodes, Speed, McCaskill, Sinclair and Gatlin families, and many others.
In addition, she shared details of many famous residents of the Hill, including World War I hero Cornelius Rizer, who lived with wife Addie Rizer on Avenue H; Benjamin Bryant, uncle of Addie Rizer, a carpenter and boat builder; Isaiah Abrams, another skilled carpenter and landlord on the Hill, and daughter Sadie Ford, who worked taking in laundry and collecting tickets at Dixie Theatre’s separate section for blacks, and put both her children through college; Em Smith, who helped form an African American school board to develop schools for black children; Willie B. Speed, a former principal of Quinn High School and member of the school board; Mercy Paige from Pensacola, who in 1919, at the height of Jim Crow, pleaded with the Mobile diocese to establish a Catholic school here, which led to nuns from the black Holy Family order from New Orleans teaching classes in the convent, and leading church services in the parish hall; and Abe and Azalee Johnson, parents of Mayor Van Johnson, owners of the Green Lantern, a café and juke joint, and active in the community, with Abe serving as head of Black Voters’ League and Azalee first president of the Franklin County chapter of the NAACP.
Richardson closed her presentation with a description of her current project, The Memory Lab Project, which she is coordinating in conjunction with the Apalachicola Margaret Key Library. The project is designed to provide county residents with the resources to create personal archives of their family histories, by digitizing existing stories pictures, slides, films, letters and other documents.
For more information on the Memory Lab, call the library at 653-8436 or email firstname.lastname@example.org