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Sunday Favorites: The Scourge of Slavery in Florida

Published Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:05 am
Photo: Florida Historical Archives

When students from Manatee High School visit the Florida Modern Day Slavery Museum on Monday, they’ll likely understand that modern day slavery is not separate from the past, but instead deeply connected to the state’s history. 


Conditions for the average agricultural worker are not far removed from those of their counterparts of the early sixteenth century, when indentured servitude was tightly wrapped around Florida’s roots, and it’s agricultural past. 


History teaches us that in Saint Augustine, the first city in Florida, settlers utilized slave labor to harvest crops and other essentials for the colony’s survival. And, as the population of the state grew, slave labor became more and more prominent. 


However, during Spanish rule, slaves were allowed to buy their freedom in St. Augustine, according to the Blanchard House Museum in Punta Gorda, but by 1763 when Great Britain gained control of Florida, planters from the Carolinas and Georgia began developing large-scale commercial agriculture in the state and used enslaved Africans as their main labor source during this time. 


When the Spanish regained control of Florida following the American Revolution, Florida’s northeastern coast became a vital hub of importing slave labor for North America after the Untied States Congress imposed a ban on the international slave trade in 1807. 


When the U.S. acquired Florida in 1821, the state then transitioned to being a full blown hub for the import of slave labor to harvest sugar and cotton throughout the state. 


In Manatee County, one of the first plantation owners, Major Robert Gamble, used at least 600 slaves to harvest his 1,500 acres of sugar cane. Slave labor was also utilized for William Craig’s sugar mill, and the Atwood Grove, which was the largest grapefruit grove in the world at that time. 


By the year 1860, 140,424 people lived in the state of Florida, 44 percent of which was enslaved, according to historical census data. There were less than 1,000 free Africans in Florida at the start of the Civil War. 


The state, and the nation, would shift dramatically, when the 13th Amendment of the constitution was passed in 1865. Plantation owners still relying on the sweat and toil of their slave labor, sought to invest in a low wage, disenfranchised workforce.

Convicts leased to harvest crops

Photo: Florida Historical Archives

As plantation owners struggled to adjust to new federal mandates, labor relations were strained across the board. In some instances, the threat of violence was the only motivation that plantation owners could conceive, and between 1882 and 1930, black Floridians suffered the highest per capita lynching rate in the United States. 266 killings were linked to labor disputes during that timeframe, according to historians at the Florida Modern Day Slavery Museum. 


In Palmetto, an altercation erupted into gunfire in 1896 at the Manatee Lemon Company, where the Ku Klux Klan threatened the manger, C.L. Harvey, because he employed black workers. Things came to a head, when a black worker shot and killed the town marshal after a mob tried to seize his 14 year-old son, according to an article by local historian Pam Gibson.


Plantation owners became more crafty in their search for free labor, finding loopholes in federal law by employing convicts, often arrested on flimsy vagrancy charges, which were were leased by county prisons to perform the duties of slaves. Florida abolished the lease system in 1923.


Another form of servitude that emerged during this period is debt peonage, which was associated with share cropping, and quietly practiced within Manatee, and other parts of Florida, in the well-known turpentine industry. 


As modern agriculture expanded, truck farming became popular because of the railroads and other new forms of transportation. Large-scale operations lead a new type of workforce, a migratory population of agricultural laborers that would arrive prior to harvest and leave upon its completion. 


In the end, this new breed of worker, gave rise to what many believe is a new form of slavery, one in which the labor force, while compensated for their efforts, still remain as one of the lowest paid classes in the state. 


Many of these migrant workers are illegal immigrants with no rights, no protection, and have a tragic connection to their enslaved counterparts of generations past. 


The reality of modern slavery and human trafficking will be brought to life for MHS students when they tour a cargo truck outfitted as a replica of a truck involved in a recent slavery operation. 


According to the museum, savage field bosses used the truck to enslave and brutalize Mexican and Guatemalan farm workers; 12 men were locked in boxes, chained and beaten, and forced to work on farms in Florida. The truck will be accompanied by displays that detail the history and evolution of slavery in Florida.

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This is a very valuable article - should be required reading at the high school level history class. Too many Floridians, black and white, do not know the sad history of slavery in our state. They do not accept the legacy of "moral horror" it should have formed in the lives of the descendents of those white ex-slave owners. Young people today are taught about the death of six million Jews in the "Holocaust" of WW II - but not about the equally repugnant holocaust of the "peculiar institution" wrought by the rich Southern Plantation Owners.
Posted by Sandra J. Gander on December 9, 2012

This is my favorite column in this Paper; however I am really dissapointed with this article. To compare illegals with slaves is simply political spin. These folks are not forced to come here to work, they are not forced to stay. They aren't even made to leave unles they are caught breaking some other law. These people don't see this as slavery, they see it as opportunity and liberty. Don't demean them by calling them slaves. They have the freedom to return home anytime they wish.
Posted by Lee McCoy on December 9, 2012

My (black) wife and I once went to an antebellum celebration at Gamble Plantation. All these wonderful people were dressed as slaveowners and confederate soldiers. My wife was the only black person. And the exhibits at Gamble Plantation extol the wonders of white people's lives back in the day when they were slavers and rapists, except for one little plaque we saw about slave quarters.

There were no slave quarters to be seen; just the sign telling us where they once were.

The Gamble Plantation would be much more realistic if it had either real black people or pictures of black people getting punished at the whim of their master, and maybe a woman or two crying, "Please don't do that, master, I'm a Christian woman."

As it is now, as my put it, Gamble Plantation is someplace "white people who were born too late to own slaves can go and pretend they weren't."

Even a sound track would help: Wails and crying, a lash coming down on a naked back... that would make Gamble Plantation much more realistic than it is now.

And modern-day slavery? Yes. Of course. Florida planters haven't changed a whole lot, have they? And other businesses, too, want to have people who work for as little as possible -- preferably free if they could get away with it.

I will not point fingers at any political party or group, but I must point out that some people want to reduce American working people to slave-like poverty. As it is, they sneer at the 47% of us who don't earn very much. You'd think the sneerers would want to make life better for their fellow Americans, but they don't.

They want to live like the Gambles: 600 slaves to support one family.
Posted by Robin Miller on December 9, 2012

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