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Community Sunday Favorites: The Scourge of Slavery in Florida

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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