The Illusion of Freedom: African Americans in 1890s Florida

House and grounds employees of Killearn Gardens — Tallahassee, Florida. 1928. (State Archives of Florida)

Despite being granted their freedom some thirty years prior, freed slaves in turn of the century Florida were still barely unshackled. Being set free (13th Amendment), granted equal citizenship (14th Amendment), and given the right to vote (15th Amendment) didn’t mean very much once the Union soldiers pulled out after the Great Betrayal of 1877.

Wealthy landowners and politicians were then loosed to pass all kinds of laws and discriminatory practices. Town developers in the booming Sunshine State could deny land ownership rights or ban “negroes” altogether. Most of the white populous certainly had no intention of seeing blacks as more than cheap labor, much less as equal citizens.

Public perception at the time saw the race as an inferior class of less evolved humans that still held tendencies from their jungle days. Some even purported Africans had supernatural powers. They were viewed as curious and exotic, yet at the same time untamed, violent and lazy.

Of course, it behooved the Southern industrial complex to forward this perception and to ensure blacks were kept uneducated, ignorant, and feared yet defeated. Since they could no longer be legally enslaved, it was essential to keep them economically, culturally and politically subjugated.

This was as much to keep an abundance of cheap labor in the agriculture-driven economy as it was to keep blacks from realizing the full potential of their power, being that they were the majority in many districts.

But that’s for an upcoming article. Here let’s focus on basic cultural attitudes…

The Pabor Lake Pineapple was a small newspaper in a little wanna-be Central Florida city. The town never made it much past the turn of the century, but the words in its pages live on and give us a good glimpse of life in those days.

And keep in mind Pabor Lake was a relatively progressive colony, being founded by a journalist who was from New York City via Colorado. So their views mark the moral high water mark for much of Florida in the 1890s!

No Negro Proviso

Pabor Lake was just north of Avon Park, which still exists as a prominent city on the Lake Wales Ridge. Today Avon Park has a very mixed-ethnicity population; however, at the same time it still has very segregated housing.

Its distinct black neighborhood surely has roots in the policies and attitudes of this era. Founded in 1886, Avon Park had a very strict policy that did not allow any African Americans to live within its town limits. Pabor Lake, meanwhile, boasted of its more liberal stance:

“We have been asked whether the “no negro” proviso, as it exists at Avon Park, is to be enforced at Pabor Lake. We desire to say that we believe in the right of every colonist of ours to bring with them negro servants if they have them, and as there is no law; written or unwritten to forbid them, far be it from us to assume to interfere with private rights or privileges. As to selling land to negroes, that is another matter. Help is scarce, and there should be nothing done to prevent settlers from bringing their own help, of whatever color, with them. We have no fear that any, except cultured white people, will ever dominate the Pabor Lake Colony lands.”


So while they certainly refused to allow “negroes” themselves to become landowners, they would allow white settlers to bring them as their servants to attend their household and pineapple plantations. Sounds a lot like slave times to me!

How to Treat Black Servants

Family of six with servant. Between 1885 and 1910. (State Archives of Florida/Harper)

A common attitude in the post-Reconstruction era (and perhaps beyond) was that blacks were lazy and did sub-standard work. They were sloppy and dirty. They back-talked and complained a lot.

Certainly a lot of that was simply prejudice and propaganda. However, some thought-leaders at the time offered a remedy for this poor behavior: pay them on time and don’t treat them like absolute shit!

So here are the suggestions, exerts from a January 1893 Pabor Lake Pineapple article, from a successful homemaker on how to get your help to actually work hard and be loyal. Let’s take the article section by section with commentary after each…

One of the most universal complaints among Florida women, as a rule, is the quality of the help and from our experience we are rather inclined to believe that the complaint is based upon good ground, but then our women must bear in mind there are certain duties devolving upon them as the lady of the home, and we believe the following hints will be helpful to Florida women as well as those of other states.

A certain successful homemaker says, she pays them their wages promptly and just as they wish it, weekly, monthly, quarterly, but she never has them come to her for it, and we believe right here is where many of the bitter complaints arise, at least no small number of them. We have actually heard and talked with this class and a large majority take that as the foremost excuse for leaving certain places. Thus we must conclude that these long delayed payments of wages cause much dissatisfaction on the part of the servants.

GASP! Imagine that these employees want to be paid in a timely and regular fashion! They don’t want to have to remind you to pay them.

She says she comments freely when the work is done well. “I like very much to have my friends, and especially my husband and sons, say pleasant things about my pictures and china painting, and I try to remember that there is no one but me to say a pleasant word about the work my servants do, nor to say that word. If my cook makes a particular success of a dish, I tell her so; or if the clean clothes look very nice I speak of that, or of the well-made beds, or the clear windows, or any such work as it comes in my way to notice. I find this is always very gratifying, and I think it only a fair recognition of the universal love of approbation.

Interesting. So it helps employee morale to give compliments when they do a good job. And when you say nice things people tend to want to keep working for you. <sarcasm>Revolutionary concepts indeed!</sarcasm>

I will not tolerate untidiness in person or dress, nor unkempt hair at any hour of the day, but find that a few words of praise accomplish more than much of general remark. Thus I may say to my help: “How pretty your fresh calico looks!” or “I’m so glad you never wear old slippers,” and I find that such remarks are long remembered. I do not require a servant to wear a cap or any other uniform or livery if it is distasteful to her. Recollecting how much of a trial to myself has been the wearing of some article that I dislike, I will not add a needless discomfort to a servant’s life.

Don’t talk down to them about their appearance or ratty clothes (probably because they were paid pennies). Check! Allow them to wear comfortable clothing as they go about doing your household chores. Check!

“Then I never scold. If the work is not done well I show the maid what does not suit me, or explain to her a better way. Neither do I blame unduly for broken dishes and torn clothing. Such things happen under the best of care. But I do require all accidents to be at once reported, so that I may know just the condition of my pantry or wardrobe. I think that few servants are willfully careless, and scolding only makes them assume a very trying air of bravado as they feel the injustice of censure.”
Yes, when a kind word rightlyspoken would have been of decidedly more weight.

Constructive criticism and training were apparently not common workplace practices back then — at least toward the servant class. Understanding that mistakes happen and not chewing them out or beating them was apparently a new concept as well.

I respect their religious views whatever they may be, and arrange matters so that they may regularly service at some fixed place attend.

How nice, given the First Amendment and all.

I trust them, not keeping everything under lock and key as if I thought they were watching a chance to steal, and, so far as I know, I have never lost the smallest trifle by the dishonesty of a servant.

Hmm... Curiously, people don’t enjoy being assumed unjustly to be thieves. Then when you give them the benefit of the doubt, they prove themselves to amazingly not be criminals!

When my children wish any special service they are required to ask it courteously and not demand it, though I expect reasonable requests to be attended to.

Parent of the year advice here: teach your children to be decent and polite human beings.

Lastly, as I never had a servant who liked to be called by that word I never use the word “servant” in their hearing. According to the neighborhood custom, of their own preference, they speak of each other as “help,” or “girls,” and generally speak of service families as “living out.” If the use of any of these words seems better to satisfy their sense of independence I like to gratify them.

These freed people didn’t enjoy being referred to as a term they deemed derogatory. A word they most likely were called during slave times when they had no rights and were not legally citizens.

Notice that she only doesn’t use these terms in their presence, but otherwise it is free game. I also find the wording of the phrase “satisfy their sense of independence” very intriguing. It seems to indicate that it was all kind of an illusion of independence, but they were really still kinda sorta like property.

With me housekeeping has been a long pleasure; when illness, or absence from home has removed my hands from the conduct of my household affairs my servants have been equal to the emergency and have faithfully performed their allotted duties, and have done everything possible to make my convalescence, or my home coming, a pleasure and a joy. Whenever there has been any change to make I have had frequent applicants for the place from those with whom my servants have been friendly, which has convinced me that my way of dealing with servants has been generally acceptable.
Many women could have the same experience to give if they would only use a little kinder feeling at times.

Listen up, ladies and gentlemen! If you treat people nice then they will work hard, want to keep working for you, and will make it easier to hire when they tell their friends that you are not as much of an jerk-hole as the guy down the street.

Really really insightful stuff here! But seriously, let’s not judge too harshly, this was just the era. We are borne out of this tradition today. Its blighted presuppositions and superiority complex still cloud our subconscious attitudes (not to mention some of our institutions and politics).

Things weren’t instantly made copacetic after the Civil War in the 1860s. Nor was equity suddenly achieved after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Freedom is a process. Equality is won a little bit of at a time, with many setbacks along the way.

Truly seeing each other as brothers and sisters is something our society is still struggling with over 120 years later. Let’s not think we are done evolving nor that have already achieved the goal. (head nod to Philippians 3:12 for that last line)

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