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Lemon City

Lemon City by Dr. Marvin Dunn

The American Civil War did not directly impact remote south Florida. The southernmost settlement on the mainland after the war was Lemon City, also called Motto, located about four miles north of what would later become Miami. Late in 1865, Colonel Thomas W. Osborn was the appointed head of the Freedmens Bureau in Florida. Osborn sent out five teams to report on economic and social conditions of blacks in Florida.

Only the report covering south Florida has been found. Colonel Thompson was accompanied by William H. Gleason, a special agent of the bureau, and they visited Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Monroe, Dade, Brevard, Orange, and Volusia counties. They conferred with civil and military leaders and concluded that blacks were faring well. In Dade County they found only three blacks in need of bureau assistance. At this time Florida was still a frontier state and south Florida was virtually an untouched wilderness.i

During the Reconstruction era, the Freedmen’s Bureau devised a plan to relocate fifty thousand former slaves to Dade County, which included most of what is now Broward, Palm Beach, and Collier counties. The plan was killed by Gleason, who returned to Dade County as a carpetbagger with his own plans for the area. Carpetbaggers were seen by southern whites as “nigger-lovers” who would have black people rule whites in the defeated South. Gleason did nothing to discourage this impression of carpetbaggers in Dade County; indeed, he encouraged it by his own actions.

Gleason became a legend in south Florida in his ruthless grab for power. Notably, he associated with two freed slaves, Andrew Price and Octavius Aimar, who had settled in Lemon City after the war. After Gleason managed to become lieutenant governor in 1868, he arranged to have Aimar appointed school board chairman and Price appointed as both a county commissioner and as a member of the school board, even though Price is believed to have been illiterate.

According to Miami historian Thelma Peters, Aimar was a mulatto from Sullivan Island, South Carolina, and Peters believes that Price was the first black person to hold public office in Dade County. The carpetbagger appointments were made before there was organized government in Dade County and were probably made as a political ploy by Gleason rather than as a serious attempt to empower blacks.

A significant number of the earliest Lemon City pioneers, black and white, came from South Carolina. The black pioneers of Lemon City often lived as squatters in shacks in the citrus groves being cultivated by white farmers. According to Peters, many black families did not live in communities but were scattered “…sometimes living on farms or groves belonging to white owners where they were assured of a house to live in and at least seasonal work. Home was a shack, some better than others, for which the rent was usually one dollar a week and paid for by work.”ii By 1890, there were also a few black farmhands from the Bahamas living permanently in Lemon City.

 

i Wolfe, Citrus Growing in Florida, 86.

ii Peters, Lemon City Pioneering on Biscayne Bay 1850-1925