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Founders of SWFL city focused on equality

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Posted at 6:50 AM, Feb 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-26 06:50:37-05

PUNTA GORDA, Fla — There's a connection to history in Punta Gorda that you don't always see in Southwest Florida. It's in the old houses and cobblestone roads, there's even a history park here.

"Because our beginnings, we're different than other Southern towns," Dr. Martha Bireda says.

She can trace her family history back to when the town started. And she has a stake in it's future too, her son Jaha Cummings is Punta Gorda City Council Member.

"You can almost feel the 1880s to the 1920s in the air here," Cummings says.

In those 40 years, a group of African American men helped create a city. And they became some of it's most successful business owners. This story is part of a series of stories Fox 4 is telling, to celebrate Black History Month.

"All the men who came here," Dr. Bireda says, "the African Americans, were men who's parents had been enslaved. And these men were able to come to Punta Gorda and see the products of their work. And you can only imagine what it felt like to them."

Their story starts in a swamp.

Sometime around 1883, Issac Trabue bought land in the area and planned a small city. He hired future Florida Governor Albert Gilchrist to survey the land, and Gilchrist brought 15 men to the area to do the work. They had to be skilled, intelligent men. Seven of them were African American.

"It was a shared prosperity. They had to work together," Dr. Bireda says. "They couldn't hate. You know, you have bears and alligators, so how could you hate? They had to be for each other."

And she says that set the tone of equality in Punta Gorda.

By 1886 Dan Smith, one of the original surveyors, was running a church with both black and white parishioners. A year later, a group of men, including four African Americans, signed the charter to make Punta Gorda a city.

Among them was O.B. Armstrong. He owned a hotel and grocery store in downtown Punta Gorda, right next to white business owners. That wasn't happening in very many places in Florida at the time.

George Brown started several businesses along Charlotte Harbor and he became one of the city's biggest employers of both black and white men. He was also one of the city's biggest landowners. He sold Charlotte County the land where they built the first courthouse. There's a mural dedicated to him on the property today.

But to really appreciate what happened in Punta Gorda, you have to consider what was going on in the rest of the state.

In 1885 Florida lawmakers passed Jim Crow laws that made it nearly impossible for black men to vote. But Dr. Bireda says records show those men were able to vote in Punta Gorda.

And for a time, the city also avoided the kind of large scale segregation that was going on in the rest of the state.

In 1894, the city of Palm Beach began moving African Americans from the Styx neighborhood into shantytowns. More than 30 years later, African Americans in Tampa were living in condemned shacks in the Red Quarters.

But during that same period, many African Americans were thriving in Punta Gorda. They owned land, they owned businesses and started their own school. The only newspaper in town, always referred to George Brown as "Mr. Brown."

"It was just an understanding that in order to make this happen, we couldn't buy into these things that were happening elsewhere," Cummings says.

"There was not this presence of anger or resentment of their good fortune," Dr. Bireda says.

In the Jim Crow South, it was about as equal as it could get. But Jim Crow laws were made to suppress, and that happened here, as well.

Benjamin Baker ran the first school for African American children in town. And Dr. Bireda says black parents here emphasized their children's education. But the children had to leave Punta Gorda for higher education. And to get the kind of jobs they wanted, they had to go up north.

As the city grew in the '20s and '30s, more outsiders came to town and they brought their prejudices with them. Slowly, African American business owners were moved to their own, segregated part of town. That drove many people to leave as well.

At one point in the '20s, 41% of the population here was African American. Today it's 3%.

Which is part of the reason Dr. Bireda runs the Blanchard House Museum of African American History. So stories like this will not be forgotten.

"We had a group of me who said we're going to build a town together," Cummings says. "They went up against some tremendous odds and they were able to wildly overcome them. And it's because they were unified in their goals and execution."

"People need to see each other as individuals, establish relationships, and work together for the common good," Dr. Bireda says. "That's what happened here. They worked together for the common good."