Stripping Turpentine, 1890s. Source: Florida Memory Project.

Black History Month is celebrated each February as a time to remember the contributions of our brothers and sisters of color. In rural Hillsborough County, it may be a little harder to find that history because there are fewer relevant written records, but if you dig just a little, you’ll discover a rich trove of stories worth celebrating. Here are just a few:

We don’t know their names, but free and enslaved African soldiers accompanied Hernando de Soto on his 1539 exploration of Florida. These explorers established their first camp near the mouth of the Little Manatee River near today’s Ruskin.

In that same part of Hillsborough County, nearly 300 years later, Black Seminole hunters roamed our land from their stronghold in Angola (in today’s Bradenton) until Andrew Jackson ordered Angola‘s destruction in 1819.

Early white settlers often brought small numbers of slaves into Hillsborough County after 1842 to work on small family farms. John Brandon (namesake of today’s Brandon) brought a somewhat larger group of seven slaves with him from Mississippi when he came to rural Hillsborough County in 1857.

Following the Civil War, newly freed blacks struggled to define their freedom. For example, in Eastern Hillsborough County, a group of twelve Black men and women founded the agricultural community of Bealesville in 1865. One of these men was Mills Holloman, who served two terms on the Hillsborough County Commission from 1868 to 1871.

Other freedmen claimed their own ranches and farms as a result of the Southern Homestead Act during the Reconstruction era. Mack Hamilton established a 120-acre ranch near Cork (now Plant City) in 1877 and registered the ‘MH’ brand for his cattle. Stephen Harvell was a working cowboy for a white rancher but later claimed an 80-acre farm near Mango.

In the early 20th century, Black laborers often worked in agriculture but also road building and the nearby phosphate mines. Regardless, Black laborers typically faced low pay and back-breaking labor wherever they worked.

Black convicts suffered even worse conditions in local turpentine camps where brutal, slave-like conditions were the norm. One of those camps, near modern-day Ruskin, was called ‘Siberia’ as a tribute to its harsh environment.

Just like the rest of the South, ‘Jim Crow’ laws enforced segregation in Hillsborough County in the first half of the 20th century. Florida and Hillsborough County laws required a separate ‘Negro’ school system.

The callousness of that system was a constant reminder to Black citizens that the doctrine of “separate but equal” may have been separate but far from equal. None of these conditions would have surprised rural Black residents of Hillsborough County who faced segregation daily.

In 1945, School Board Commissioner Ellsworth Simmons noted that the “Keysville school was a shack, the Wimauma school was in deplorable condition and the Sun City School was off its foundation.” Despite these conditions, Simmons opposed a remedy to consolidate because of projected transportation costs, not because of the ramshackle state of the schools.

African Americans worked in the vegetable and strawberry fields for very low pay. They often lived in small worker communities tucked into the corners of large farms. One of those was located near Big Bend Rd. in Apollo Beach, where Alberta Harris lived in ‘The Elsberry Quarters’ from approximately 1956 to 1968.

During World War II, farmers faced severe labor shortages that threatened the county’s farm economy. Temporary Black workers were imported from the Bahamas into Hillsborough County to save the harvest. Without their work, vegetables and fruits would have died “on the vine.” After the war, many former Black farm laborers did not return to the fields. They sought better-paying jobs in the cities and farm workers from Latin America soon replaced them.

Of course, there is much more to discover about the history of the Black experience in Hillsborough County. There are certainly more stories to tell. History includes the stories of all of us, known and unknown. Each story is important.

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