A Black History Lesson by Dr. Marvin Dunn
The Civil Rights Movement in Miami
A group of black veterans celebrate the opening of Virginia Key Beach for Negroes
The civil rights movement began an activist period in Miami well before demonstrations in other parts of the state. Blacks had conducted or threatened wade-ins at public beaches since shortly after the end of the Second World War. Many black veterans settled in Miami after World War Two and were not pleased with race relations in Miami. They were in no mood to sit on the back of the bus when they returned home.
Their first efforts focused upon Virginia Key Beach which the Navy had been using to train black seamen to swim since Crandon Park, a Dade County beach where white sailors were trained was not available to black sailors. When the county attempted to close the beach after the war, blacks threatened to swim at Crandon Park. The county opened Virginia Key Beach a few months later.
Dr. John O. Brown was an ophthalmologist who served as an officer during the Second World War and retired in Miami. He was a Black Seminole descendant and served as the head of Miami’s chapter of CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) the most activist of the civil rights organizations in the country. Dr. Brown related to me that the civil rights movement in Miami was supported by blue collar working people. “You couldn’t get a black teacher to join CORE or even the NAACP. They were scared they would lose their jobs” which was altogether possible. Harry T. Moore and his wife were educators in Brevard County in 1950. Both were fired for being active in the NAACP.
Dr. Brown told me, “It was the little people like the custodians, the maids, the yardmen and the bus drivers who paid the dues that kept the movement going…and Jews. The rich Negroes in Miami would not join civil rights organizations because they had a stake in segregation. They owned or operated the segregated clubs and hotels in Colored Town.”
The desegregation of housing in Dade County met with widespread white resistance. In Coconut Grove, whites had a concrete wall built to physically divide the white section of the Grove from the adjacent Bahamian section. The same thing happened as blacks moved out of Overtown, the historic black area, into Liberty City. Parts of both walls still stand today.
On 23, September 1951, one hundred pounds of dynamite exploded under an unoccupied apartment building in an all-white area northwest of town. The bomb was meant to discourage blacks from moving in. The culprits were never caught.
The most activists of the civil rights organizations in Miami was the local chapter of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, led by a black ophthalmologist Dr. John O. Brown. He had moved to Miami from Wewoka, Oklahoma after leaving the Army when WW II ended. Brown was appalled at what he found in Miami. He threw himself in to the barely breathing local movement. He was one of twelve black parents to sue the Dade County School Board to admit their children to all-white schools. He organized numerous demonstrations and was pivotal in involving whites in the movement.
According to Dr. Brown, “Had it not been for some of the whites, there would not have been a CORE chapter in Miami.” As far as support from blacks was concerned, he credits, “the little man” for keeping the movement fueled with money and volunteers. “You couldn’t get black professional people involved. They were afraid of losing their jobs. It was the janitor, the maid, the bus driver, the yardman, who gave us the 5 and 10 dollar contributions that got us through.” Brown specifically mentioned white attorneys Howard Dixon and Tobias Simon.
He praised local Jews who became involved such as Jack Gordon, who later became a powerful member of the state senate, and his wife, Barbara. Others he mentioned were Ruth Perry, a librarian from Miami Beach, who served CORE for many years as its secretary. Brown also recognized Shirley and Milton Zoloth, Thalia Peters and Phillip Stern, Marilyn and Herb Bloom, Dade County educators, and Leonard Turkel, a businessman and his wife, Annsheila.i
Dr. Brown was especially cognizant of the contributions made by one white man in particular, John Turner, a very influential businessman who, according to Brown, “When he snapped his fingers, Miami mayor Robert King High jumped. He was a Scotch-Irish man who knew how to get things done. He got people with clout on the county’s Community Relations Board. He pulled in bankers, politicians and others and compelled them to listen to black concerns.ii
Howard Dixon, a white attorney who represented blacks during the civil rights period gave the following account of his relations with his white neighbors during his period of activism in Dade County’s civil rights movement:
When we came here, I think, for me, there was just no question that the injustice that was going on around us was unbearable. And, I have to say that we were fearless. Nothing frightened us. We were not frightened about our ability to make a living. Maybe it was just stupidity. The danger of it was just not something we thought about. We would fight with friends of ours who would say, Well, I can’t do that. I am an insurance man. I’ll lose all my clients if somebody finds out. And we would have those big arguments all the time.iii
Miami’s had many other civil rights activists during the movement. They included A.D. Moore also a leader of CORE. He led a boycott of one of the city’s largest department stores, Shell City, for refusing to serve blacks at its lunch counter. In August 1960 a group of 18 blacks were arrested in their attempt to desegregate the lunch counter. Howard Dixon and Tobias Simon defended the arrested CORE demonstrators. But, their clients were convicted and placed on probation for one year by Judge George E. Shultz.iv
Other Miami civil rights leaders included, Sam Solomon, a writer and black advocate, and activists Ottis James. There were also the Drs. George Simpson and Elmer Ward, the Reverend Edward T. Graham, head of one of the largest black churches in the city, and attorneys G.E. Graves and John D. Johnson, who represented the NAACP and other groups to force desegregation in the county. Then there was the Reverend Theodore R. Gibson, pastor of the huge Christ Episcopal Church buried deep in the heart of the Bahamian Black Coconut Grove enclave. He would emerge as the most prominent of the Miami black leaders of the era.
Local government response to demands for desegregation was typical of most Southern local governments; delay, compromise, resist. For example, when blacks demanded access to the City of Miami ‘s public golf course in the late 1950s, the city offered to open the golf course to blacks one day a week, when the course was closed for maintenance and watering.
The blacks, which included the owner of the city’s most important black newspaper, The Miami Times, Garth Reeves, Elmer Ward, attorney John D. Johnson and Joesph Rice, refused the offer and sued the city. Miami’s right to keep the golf course segregated was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. Represented by the ubiquitous black attorney G. E. Graves, the blacks appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In October 1960, the Court slapped Miami in the face by voting unanimously that the city’s actions were unconstitutional. Without even hearing the city’s defense, the Court vacated the Florida Supreme Court decision and sent the case back to Tallahassee for reconsideration. The golf courses were desegregated without incident.
Dade County behaved no better. Rather than pressing for the desegregation of local hotels as the county gained attraction as an international center, Dade County opened a hotel at Miami International Airport that was available to traveling black dignitaries after incidents in which black foreign officials were not admitted to local white hotels. That hotel continues to operate today.
In Miami activism and intransigence landed the NAACP and the state of Florida befor
Marvin Dunn (maternal side)
Corinne Elizabeth Williams Dunn (mom) married to James Calvin Dunn (pop)
Leona Bryant Williams, (“Mobo”) grandmother- married to “Buck” Williams (never knew his first name)
Mary Cleveland Bryant, great grandmother – Robert Bryant (Cherokee Indian)
Elizabeth Cleveland, great, great grandmother – married to John Cleveland, Jr. (both are buried in Meigs, Ga.)
Hannah, great, great, great, grandmother- no information
A Black History Lesson by Dr. Marvin Dunn
(Adapted from “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century”, by Dr. Marvin Dunn)
The Civil Rights Movement in Florida: The Gibson Case (Adults)
A divided U.S. Supreme Court issued one of its most important decisions during the American civil rights era in February 1963, when the Court, in a five‑four decision in favor of the two ministers, concluded that the Johns Committee had only a limited right to fish for Communists in the membership rolls of non-subversive organizations. The majority opinion, two concurring opinions and two dissenting opinions filled forty-eight pages with the clashing views of the nine justices.
Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote that there was “an utter failure” to show a connection between the Miami NAACP and subversive activities which was sufficient to justify violating the organization’s freedom of association: “The Florida Committee is not seeking to identify subversives,” Goldberg wrote; “It is the NAACP itself which is the subject of the investigation. Compelling such an organization to disclose its membership presents . . . a question wholly different from compelling the Communist Party to disclose its own membership.”v Goldberg called protection of the right of freedom of association, “all the more essential when an organization is unpopular with its neighbors. To impose a lesser standard would be inconsistent with the maintenance of those essential conditions basic to our democracy,” he wrote.
“I thank my God,” Gibson replied. “The NAACP, as I have said many times, is not communistic; has never been on the attorney general’s list, nor any other subversive list, and I feel and believe that it never will be. The NAACP is simply a good American organization.”vi
Civil Rights leaders in Fort Lauderdale
The Martyrdom of Harry T. Moore (1951)
Moore and his wife Harriette
He graduated in 1925 and was hired to teach at a black school in Brevard County on the east coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. In a short time, he became principal of the black high school in Cocoa. By 1926, Moore met and married Harriette Vyda Simms, who also became a teacher in Brevard County. They had two daughters, Annie Rosalea, who was called “Peaches,” and Juanita Evangeline.
Almost from the start of his work in Brevard County, Moore was an activist. Concerned about the disparity in pay for white and black public school teachers, he began advocating for fair pay. He supported an unsuccessful legal challenge to the discrimination to which black teachers were subjected. People started noticing him, and whites did not like what they saw. Moore had begun organizing NAACP chapters all over the state, traveling mainly to rural areas to organize chapters and to register blacks to vote. At that time, almost all blacks were registered as Republicans because that was the party of Lincoln who had freed them. In this sense, Moore was a visionary, who anticipated the powerful impact blacks could have politically in Florida, particularly if they were allowed to become Democrats.
Then Moore went where no black man in Florida had gone before: He began accusing white sheriffs of participating in, or covering up, lynchings. He became Willis V. McCall’s nemesis. Moore had been a schoolmate of Lula Howard. When her son Willie James was lynched, Moore, having been privy to the quiet investigation the governor ordered, raised the cry, correctly, that the police were covering up the crime. At a time when NAACP membership could result in being fired or worse, and many black churches were reluctant to let him hold meetings for fear of bombing, Moore had driven alone throughout rural areas of the state holding secret meetings to organize protests and wage legal battles over lynchings, school segregation, and disparate pay for black teachers.
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Harry T. Moore was the most important civil rights leader in Florida history. He and his wife Harriette were killed by a bomb that was placed under their home in Mims, Florida, on Christmas night in 1951.
Florida State Archives
Moore developed a following outside of Florida. He wrote articles for black media including the widely-read Pittsburgh Courier. He wrote letters to high ranking NAACP leaders in New York, enjoining them to raise the cry about the brutality that blacks in Florida were confronting. He wrote to Florida governors and to the Department of Justice asking for state and federal intervention in anti-black violence in the state. “Governor Caldwell and Attorney General J. Tom Watson generally ignored acts of violence and intimidation against black citizens and against those involved in NAACP activities.”vii
Moore had helped thousands of blacks to register to vote, following the Allwright decision that outlawed the whites-only Democratic primary. Before the Allwright decision, since Democrats controlled the state, and blacks could only vote in the Republican primaries, their vote was irrelevant. The Allwright decision allowed blacks to become real players in the Democratic Party. Moore’s Progressive Voters League (PVL) was now being courted by white politicians. The PVL was endorsing candidates and the state’s black voters were about to be the deciding factor in the 1952 gubernatorial election.
Prior to his death, Moore had been traveling widely around the state calling for the indictment of Sheriff Willis V. McCall, but it was the organization of local chapters of the NAACP that took most of his time and passion. Moore’s daughter, Evangeline, said that the family was on the road most Sundays in their Model T Ford. Sometimes the family had to carry raincoats and umbrellas because it rained in the car. She said her father did not fear that someone would hurt him, but he knew that it was probable that someone would do so. According to Evangeline Moore who died in 2015, he kept his family close. “When one Moore left the house, four Moores left the house. I think my father knew we wouldn’t have long to be together as a family and he feared someone would get one of us, as a way of getting to him. He kept us very close.”viii In 1946, the Brevard County School System fired both Moore and his wife for their activism. But between 1944 and 1950 he increased the percent of black voters in the state to 31 percent, higher than that in any other southern state.
The NAACP’s national office was not happy with Moore either. Moore had established a political organization called the Progressive Voters League (PVL), and was using the organization to register blacks as Democrats. By the late 1940s, blacks could join the Democratic Party, and Moore, seeing the impotency of Republicans in Florida, was registering blacks as Democrats, so that their weight could be felt in primary elections. These elections were the only ones that really mattered in the state, dominated as it was by Democrats. This was even more dangerous ground for Moore because now he was shaking the very foundation of white power in Florida. But many blacks, including many of those in the NAACP national office, were Republicans and took exception to Moore’s politicizing the NAACP. Relations between Moore and the national office disintegrated, and Moore was ultimately fired but allowed to maintain a lower title.
On the evening of September 23, 1951, a hundred pounds of dynamite exploded behind an unoccupied sixteen-unit apartment building in Miami, in an all-white area called Carver Village. The bombing caused great agitation in the community, even among some whites. The culprits were never found. “According to Florida historian Stetson Kennedy, the FBI refused to investigate the Carver bombing[s] on the grounds that such incidents were not a violation of federal civil rights laws when citizens were not in their homes or places of worship at the time of the attack. The United States Department of Justice agreed to investigate only the damage done to mailboxes by the blast[s].”ix Three months later Harry Moore and his wife were killed.
On Christmas night, 1951, Harry T. Moore was killed, and his wife was fatally injured when a bomb exploded under the floorboards of their home in Mims. Harry Moore died that night, and his wife succumbed a few days later. The device had been carefully placed below Moore’s bedroom where he and his wife were sleeping after celebrating the holiday and their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Federal authorities suspected, but could not prove, that the killers used nitroglycerine or TNT, as the blast was far too powerful to have been caused by mere dynamite. Their oldest daughter, Annie Rosalea (“Peaches”), was at home when the bombing occurred. Evangeline, the second daughter, was returning home from Washington, D.C. where she had been visiting her fiancé’s family. She had boarded her train for Florida, completely oblivious to the news that was traveling around the world; her father, Florida’s first civil rights leader of modern times, was dead, and her mother was critically injured by the bomb blast in Mims.
Moore’s body had been thrown violently into the bedroom ceiling. A close friend would later say that it seemed like every bone in his body was broken. His kin, many in town for the holidays, rushed to the scene. The blast had been heard as far as Titusville, some four miles away. Over a thousand people assembled at the Moore home as word spread. Some had walked all the way from Titusville. Moore’s mother, who had been visiting from Jacksonville, cradled her son’s head as a car driven by a relative rushed to the nearest hospital that would accept blacks, over forty miles away in Sanford. “Harry lay slumped against his mother, moaning softly, his head bobbing involuntarily on the twisting road. Just before they arrived in Sanford, he gave out one loud groan and blood spurted from his mouth. Dr. George Starke, a black physician, was called and asked to meet them at the hospital. But, by the time Dr. Starke arrived it was too late.”x Harry T. Moore, now martyred, had slipped into history.
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The Mims home of Harry T. and Harriette Moore, after the 1951 Christmas night bombing that killed them both.
Florida State Archives
After steadily improving, Harriet died several days later. Contrary to her doctor’s advice, she left her hospital bed to attend her husband’s funeral. It was believed by some at the time, that attending the funeral brought on her demise, but her daughter Evangeline disputed this, saying that Dr. Starke did an autopsy and found a hole in her stomach and her intestines all black. Evangeline said her mother would have died anyway. Harriet had been the mainstay of her husband’s life. They had met in Cocoa and married on December 25, 1926. “If it had not been for my mother, dad would never have been able to accomplish what he did.”xi
Although never proven, it was rumored by some blacks, that the deaths were directly related to Moore’s agitations against Sheriff Willis V. McCall and the Ku Klux Klan for their alleged involvement in the Groveland incident. But Ben Green, the undisputed expert on the Moore case, challenged this assertion. “It was a political assassination,” he said. “The last conversation Harry T. Moore had with his family before they went to bed that night was about the 1952 gubernatorial campaign and how important the black vote would be in its outcome. He was getting too close to changing the political power structure in Florida. It was a hit job. The political powers-that-be at the time, ordered it and got the KKK to carry it out.”xii
This time, Florida racists had taken a bite too big. After the Claude Neal lynching, the federal government was looking askance at race violence in the South. The publicity surrounding the murder of the Moores brought the Federal Bureau of Investigation into Brevard County, and there was nothing the lynchers feared more than the FBI. The FBI found “there was a widespread network of local officials, police, and militant whites operating throughout central Florida to suppress the rights of blacks.”xiii The KKK was embedded within the local power structure in central Florida. For example, Orange County Sheriff Dave Starr was a Klansman, having been inducted into the Klan at a secret ceremony in a funeral home in Winter Garden following his election in 1948. “Winter Park City Manager Earl Harpole was a Klansman, as were Apopka Police Chief William Dunnaway and Orange County Commissioner John Talton.”xiv
The FBI focused its investigation on five suspects, three of whom died within a year of the bombing of Moore’s home. However, agents were unable to shake the Klan’s wall of silence to confirm a report that one of the suspects was holding a floor plan of Moore’s home at a Klan meeting. Several suspects claimed to have attended a Klan barbecue the day before the killings at which agents believed the murder plot was hatched. The Moore case was reopened in 1991 after a woman claimed that her ex-husband had boasted of being involved, but no arrests were made.xv
It was the extravagance of violence in the killing of the Moores plus Harry T. Moore’s standing as a hero to many people outside of Florida that finally brought federal intervention, the FBI, into the state to actively and seriously address racial violence. In the end, it was the only way the anti-black violence in Florida could be restrained. Thurgood Marshall had been a close ally. Marshall visited Moore in Mims and, ironically, given that he would later become a United States Supreme Court justice, slept in the very house where Moore and his wife were killed.
On August 17, 2006, Florida’s attorney general, Charlie Crist, then a Republican candidate for governor, announced that the Moore Case had been solved. Standing beneath a rambling oak tree in front of the site of the bombing, with the couple’s daughter Evangeline at his side, Crist announced that four long-dead Klan members were responsible for the killings. He said that strong circumstantial evidence, unearthed during a twenty-month investigation, pointed to violent factions within the KKK as being responsible for this horrible act. Those implicated were Earl J. Brooklyn, Tillman H. Bevlin, Joseph N. Cox, and Edward L. Spivey.xvi But the Crist announcement was met with skepticism from researchers (including me) and others who insisted that other whites may have been involved in Moore’s murder.
The most vocal and authoritative critic of the Crist announcement came from Ben Green, the expert on the case, who insisted that nothing new had been unearthed and that there were reasons to question the focus on these particular men. “They were just pulling names out of a hat. I cannot find any credible evidence in this report that three of the four—Brooklyn, Belvin and Spivey-were personally involved in the bombing, any more than a half dozen other Klansmen who were suspected by the FBI.”xvii In 2006, the State of Florida’s Crime Stoppers program refused to release the $25,000 reward to anyone connected to the Crist investigation, insisting also that there was no new convincing evidence uncovered to justify making the award.xviii
According to Green, the murder of the Moores had nothing to do with Willis McCall. In Green’s view, Moore was killed because he had become a serious political threat. Moore, a black man, had his hands on the very reins of black political power in Florida. He posed no real threat to the Klan. Moore had his eyes fixed on Tallahassee and Washington D.C., where he knew blacks were about to enter the South’s political stage, wielding real power. Said Green, “In my mind it was the threat that he posed to the white power structure in Florida in 1951. It wasn’t the Groveland case or Willis V. McCall.”xix Even though there were a number of influential black Republicans who had not appreciated Moore using the trappings of the organization to register blacks as Democrats, in the aftermath of his very violent and public death, the organization saw an opportunity to beat its own breast. Before the ashes of the bombed-out Moore home cooled, the national NAACP flip-flopped, praising Moore and raising him up before the shocked nation as a fallen hero. According to Green, there was a veritable food fight over who was going to claim his legacy. “They had treated him terribly shabbily and made more money off of him dead than alive.”xx
In 1952, the organization awarded Moore its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, given to the African American whose achievements were judged to be the most outstanding that year. Green believed it was nothing but a huge fundraising event for the organization. “It was yet another example of those who used Moore’s martyrdom to make money.”xxi Even as late as 2008, Evangeline Moore had not forgotten the treatment the family received from the national NAACP, and barely disguised her contempt for the organization. She said the NAACP sent someone to do a hatchet job on her father.xxii She wrote more than a dozen letters in an attempt to get the organization to settle with the family on her father’s salary, but the NAACP never paid Moore’s back salary. “When they had the big ceremony in New York at Madison Square Garden to award him the Spingarn Medal, they didn’t invite me and my sister.”xxiii
In Moore’s hometown, a local committee received $700,000 from the State to erect a replica of the house and museum in the orange grove where his home once stood. The Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Justice Center in Brevard County was named for them. Researchers at the University of Florida received state money to produce a television documentary on Moore, Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore, which was distributed to public broadcast stations nationwide. When asked why the original structure was not preserved, Evangeline Moore said that it would have been too traumatic. She had returned to the house only once and saw that she would have been killed had she been at home that night.
Evangeline Moore believed that historians decided that the civil rights movement didn’t start until 1954 when in fact, her father was actually the first martyr for the civil rights movement. “He was doing single-handedly what everyone else had groups of people doing. He was all alone.”xxiv Annie Rosalea (Peaches) died in 1972. According to Evangeline, “Peaches” lived in fear after the bombing. She was the one who opened the door to their parents’ bedroom after the explosion. Evangeline was the last Moore left. She said in 2008, “God has protected me and allowed me to rise above what happened.xxv She died in 2015.
The Lynching of Johnnie Mae Chappell (1964)
The racial and political turmoil in Jacksonville in 1964 led to the lynching of Johnnie Mae Chappell, a black woman who was the mother of ten children. Chappell was not hung. She was shot to death. The Chappell killing was a lynching in that it was an extra-legal act that was committed by three or more people and the motive was race. The city had experienced a race riot in the period leading up to the attack on Chappell. Chappell was shot by white vigilantes for no apparent reason except that she was black. She was killed on a dark highway in Jacksonville
Homer Plessey was a black man who claimed to be seventy-eight percent Caucasian. On a planned legal challenge, he boarded a whites-only rail car and was asked to move to the coach reserved for Negroes. On trains at that time, the rail car that was right behind the engine was reserved for blacks. The Negro coach caught the brunt of smoke and cinders from the engine. Plessey’s refusal led to his arrest. The case wound its way to the highest court in the land where the court ruled that as long as equal accommodations were provided for blacks, there was no denial of constitutional protection. Based upon this decision, public transportation, schools, colleges, parks, hospitals, drinking fountains, eating establishments, golf courses, swimming pools, and beaches could be segregated as long as blacks had equal accommodations available. Of course, those public accommodations were never equal.
The Plessey Decision allowed for separate seating areas for blacks and whites on buses and other forms of public transportation. Blacks were required to seat themselves from the rear of the bus while whites sat in the front. If seating for whites was filled, black passengers were expected to yield their seats to standing whites. Although much credit should be given to Rosa Parks for her courageous stand against segregated seating on public transportation within a state (intrastate), at least as much credit should be given to Irene Morgan, a black woman who, a decade earlier than Parks, challenged segregated seating in public transportation between states (interstate). Parks worked for the local NAACP and was specifically sent aboard a public bus to challenge the practice of seating passengers by race on public vehicles within state lines. This was indeed a heroic act, and there is a statute of Rosa Parks in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. However, it is little noted in the Parks narrative that the United States Supreme Court had already ruled in 1946, thanks to Irene Morgan, that it was illegal to require the separate seating of interstate passengers based upon race.
The matter of race discrimination in interstate public transportation was tested by Morgan in the spring of 1946. In Virginia, she boarded a bus headed for Baltimore, Maryland, which was an interstate trip. She was arrested and fined ten dollars for refusing to move to the Negro seating in the rear of the bus. She took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court—and won. The court avoided the race issue by concluding that to require passengers on interstate transports to move when a state line was crossed imposes an inconvenience upon the passengers, and interfered with interstate commerce which is under federal, not state, control.xxvi
Park’s action was needed because, in the end, Southerners ignored the 1946 ruling, arguing that within their boundaries, they could require separate seating based upon race as a matter of states- rights. So, despite Morgan v. Virginia, blacks still had to sit in the back of the bus in southern states. The action of Rosa Parks helped to galvanize the civil rights movement and led to more active involvement by blacks and their white supporters, in demonstrations against race discrimination, not only on buses, but in all forms of public life. In so doing, she rightfully earned her place in Statuary Hall under the rotunda in the Capitol.
Black Caesar the Pirate
Piracy lured many blacks to sea under the skull and crossbones. During the golden age of piracy, nearly one quarter of the crew members on pirate ships were black. The loot taken by pirates was divided without regard to race; thus, piracy was probably the first equal employment opportunity available to blacks in the New World. For at least some blacks, piracy was considered better than enslavement.
Pirates often used the channels that separate the Florida Keys as hideouts. They used Biscayne Bay and the surrounding area for re-supplying fresh water and meat, and for hiding from intended prey or hostile warships. As Spanish ships rode the Gulf Stream on their return trips to Spain, some weighed down by treasures looted from New World Indians, the pirates often attacked with unimaginable violence. One of the most successful and ruthless pirates in the late 1600s was an African called Black Caesar. He preyed on ships sailing off the Great Florida Reef near present-day Miami. His presence on Biscayne Bay is recorded in tales of violence, white slavery, ingenious feats of seamanship, and yet-to-be-found treasure buried in the sands of south Florida.
There are several conflicting accounts of Black Caesar and his henchmen, leading to the conclusion that there were probably two Black Caesars with more than a century separating their exploits. The stories that remain may be more myth than truth. According to one version of the origin of Black Caesar, a slave ship, teeming with hundreds of slaves below decks, was fatally wrecked against the Great Florida Reef in the late 1600s, and a giant black man reached dry land, alive and alone.
In a tiny open boat that had washed ashore, he set himself adrift in the Gulf Stream. A sloop spotted the small craft and rescued the exhausted seaman. Once aboard, however, the huge slave attacked the captain and disposed of the crew members who refused to join him. In the next few years he brazenly parlayed this sloop into larger craft and became known as Black Caesar. His lair was Elliot Key, the first large island south of Key Biscayne. A channel there still bears the name Caesar’s Creek.xxvii
The area around Cape Florida and South Florida’s Biscayne Bay was ideal for Black Caesar. The Florida Straits provided an unending parade of prizes, and when necessary, the bay offered a magnificent avenue of escape. Biscayne Bay’s tricky mud flats and shoals were deadly to the uninitiated, and beyond the bay were mangroves and blind-mouthed channels known only to Caesar.
On those rare occasions when pursuers came close, Caesar headed for the maze of mangroves; he would quickly disappear in the marshy swamp, dismast his vessel, and sink it in shallow water. With his ship underwater and his men hidden, Caesar could vanish from the most determined enemy.
Another tactic favored by Black Caesar was the use of a large metal ring imbedded deeply in a rock on a particular small island, possibly near Caesar’s Creek. With a sturdy line through the ring, Caesar could heel his ship (pull the vessel over onto its side) and hide its mast from passing vessels. When a prize came within striking distance, a lookout signaled, the ship was quickly righted, and Caesar soon appeared on the forecastle of his startled target.
As Black Caesar became infamous throughout the region, fantastic tales were told of him. These old yarns form the current legends. Most versions agree that Black Caesar was exceptionally cruel and that he had a madness for jewels, along with a passion for luxury. One report claims that he held more than 100 white women (some of them with children) captive at a prison camp on Elliot Key. He incarcerated his prisoners in stone huts and left them to starve when he later abandoned the camp. Reportedly, a few small children escaped the death camp and survived to wander about the island, subsisting on berries and shellfish, and in time, developing a primitive language of their own. This may account for the Seminole legend that the island was haunted.
In the early 1700s, Black Caesar left Biscayne Bay to join the arch-pirate Captain Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard, who was operating from the west coast of Florida, near Tampa. Black Caesar became Blackbeard’s trusted lieutenant and together in the forty-gun Queen Anne’s Revenge, they plagued the American coast. Their partnership ended abruptly in 1718 when Teach was killed off the coast of North Carolina by the British. Black Caesar was reportedly captured, taken to Virginia for trial, and hanged the same year in Williamsburg. The second Black Caesar became known over a century later. He operated in the same areas as did the first Black Caesar and was eventually captured by American naval forces. He was also probably executed.xxviii
Visitors to Central Florida’s Walt Disney World experience the Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride, which is among the attraction’s most popular rides. They see no black pirates among those on display, although more than a fourth of the crew members on pirate ships were black. Piracy was an attractive venture for some black men, opposed, as it were, to enslavement. It was an attractive occupation also because it was lucrative and, strangely enough, democratic. Captains of slave ships generally shared the spoils of their captures equally without regard to skin color. If this is true, then piracy may have been the first equal employment opportunity available to blacks in the New World.
The British Perio