PHOTO COURTESY WEST VOLUSIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY SEPARATE AND NOT EQUAL — Chisholm Center on South Clara Avenue in DeLand is dedicated in the early 1950s as a community center for Black residents, who would not be allowed in many facilities in DeLand at the time. At the microphone, saluting, is John Henry Davis, a teacher at the Black high school and leader of the Black American Legion post.

Work of ‘faceless toilers’ was key to creating our towns

Frederick Leete had another early memory to contribute, one that shows how much the rapid emergence of the new town of DeLand depended upon the efforts of the many people of color who cleared the trees, picked and packed the citrus, waited on customers at the inns, and toiled at myriad other tasks.

Many of these workers lived in small enclaves with quaint-sounding names that have never had their stories written down. As with all oral-history accounts, they fade as the participants die off and, as a result, many aspects of the African American heritage of DeLand are probably lost forever.

Karen Ryder
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment
of our feature Better Country Beyond, with excerpts from DeLandite
Karen Ryder’s, pictured, book about the early days of the founding of the city of DeLand.
The Beacon is indebted to Donna Jean Flood, a DeLand financial adviser
with Edward Jones, for the idea for this series, part of our ongoing West Volusia Memories series by community writers.

Whitewashed

Leete’s tale is one of the few recorded accounts of the efforts of these nameless and faceless people. He describes how streets were literally being chopped out of the woodlands by hired crews of Black men.

“The Negro woodcutters serenaded us with unforgettable songs; some of them still familiar melodies like ‘Ole’ Black Joe’ … and others long forgotten, such as ‘Taffy Was a Cornfield Darkie,’” Leete said.

He cited another tune the men sang as they worked that he identified as “Way Down Yonder by the Sycamore Tree.” Perhaps its lyrics were the same ones that have survived to this day.

This image of happy Black laborers singing and dancing while they worked was acted out all over the country in the popular minstrel shows of the day.

However, that this picture was a whitewashed one is made evident by the discovery of an artifact that reveals how much more sinister undercurrents were in play.

Tucked in among some archival printings is a photostatic negative of a handcrafted sign. On the back of this copy is a handwritten note stating that, in 1877, this sign was found nailed to a city tree and then taken down and saved by Frederick Leete.

The language and spelling on the sign are as crude as its message. The heading at the top reads “NIGERS CRIME oute (sic).” Between the first and second word of the heading there is an elongated and thickened X with a crude skeletal head filling the intersection of the two upper arms. A dagger and a bullet are drawn on each of these arms, and the outline of a coffin encircles the entire figure.

Below the menacing heading is the following message: “On and after the 10th of this month all niges found in the neighber-hood of Spring Garden, DeLans or Orange City will be visieted by the Native League and dealt with in a manner calculated not to incurage niger emigration.”

A postscript in the lower left-hand corner states that the warning was issued by order of the 38 members of the league.

This group likely was one of the grassroots white-supremacist bands that arose in the South after the 1877 withdrawal of the federal troops that had been enforcing Reconstruction.


Workers’ song

To be sung to the beat of axes felling trees to make streets:

PHOTO COURTESY WEST VOLUSIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
CITRUS PACKING PLANT — Workers, some of them Black, labor in 1915
in a citrus packing plant that had been owned by John B. Stetson. The plant was on Spring Garden Avenue at the railroad tracks.

A tomcat was sittin’ on a bale of hay.

A bulldog was sittin’ on the ground.

I went and pinched the bulldog’s tail

And they went around and around and around.

They went around and around.

It’s the same old tale that the crow told me,

Way down yonder by the sycamore tree.

It’s the same old tale that the crow told me,

Way down yonder by the sycamore tree.

— Lyrics to “Way Down Yonder by the Sycamore Tree”


Suburban sprawl

While the white children of DeLand enjoyed the benefits of having a certified teacher in their well-appointed schoolhouse, it was quite a different story for the Black children.

There is just one brief mention of schooling for African Americans in the accounts of the town’s early history. Helen DeLand’s memoirs state that, around 1879, the crude log cabin at Lake Beresford that served as the school for the Black children was moved to what is now Euclid Avenue.

That the children of freed slaves had a separate school building that was hardly the equal of the while children’s school was representative of the segregationist policies now solidifying all over the South during this post-Reconstruction era.

PHOTO COURTESY WEST VOLUSIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
STETSON’S GROVES — DeLand benefactor John B. Stetson — a wealthy Philadelphia hat manufacturer introduced to West Volusia by Henry A. DeLand — maintained a large crew, including many Black laborers, to cultivate and harvest his orange groves. The mansion Stetson built in DeLand stands today at 1031 Camphor Lane, and is made available by its owners for tours.

Northerners’ fears

An 1885 promotional booklet titled “DeLand: A City in the Pines” characterized the Black residents. To allay the fears of Northerners who might be hesitant about encountering the unfamiliar presence of large numbers of “the African race,” the writers acknowledged that Blacks did indeed account for a large percentage of DeLand’s population, just as they did in “most Southern towns.”

But this is made out to be a bonus, since the Blacks were willing to perform “nearly all the manual labor,” according to the booklet.

While the text granted that these workers were poorly paid for their efforts — “receiving but one dollar … for a day’s hard work in the clearing or the grove” — it then reflected the common cultural prejudices of the day by portraying the Blacks as being quite content with these circumstances. “They are the happiest people on earth [with their] incessant and boisterous laughter,” the booklet states.

PHOTOS COURTESY WEST VOLUSIA HISTORIAL SOCIETY
TWO WHO MADE HISTORY — Among Black residents whose achievements are chronicled in the history of West Volusia are Wilhelmina Hill, a humanitarian and educator who was the organist for 29 years, and a Sunday school teacher, at Greater Union First Baptist Church of DeLand; and Charles T. Bailey, a member of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, Black pilots who flew in World War II.

Prospective newcomers could not only look forward to finding it well within their means to hire out the hardest physical labors, they could also expect to have a great source of entertainment, as well.

None of this bunch, the text stated, was “too old to relish sugar cane and peanuts or too blasé to perform upon a mouth organ.”

Thus, the booklet argues, there was not only nothing to fear from such simple childlike folk, but, in fact, many benefits to be found in their presence that could not be realized in Northern locations.

— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand and are active members of the West Volusia Historical Society. For information about obtaining a copy of her book Better Country Beyond, call the Historical Society at 386-740- 6813, or email delandhouse@ msn.com.

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