The Port Orange community gathered together at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on Feb. 12, to celebrate its founding homestead of Freemanville.
The Port Orange community gathered at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to celebrate the 16th-annual Freemanville Day on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
The city gathers each year to honor the community’s African American heritage. Port Orange Mayor Don Burnette and Volusia County Councilman Fred Lowry each read proclamations for the celebration. Pastor Trudy Crusco officiated the event.
The settlement of Freemanville began in October 1865, shortly after the Civil War. The area was established by Dr. John Milton Hawks, a Union army surgeon, who came to the area with several African American soldiers to make a freeman settlement and gain economic riches. Hawks was described as a “typical carpetbagger."
"Good motives and money was involved,” Historian Dr. Leonard Lempel said.
Together, Hawks and the soldiers built the Florida Land and Lumber Company. Over 500 former slaves, mostly Union soldiers and their families, came to the area to work and create new lives. The settlement was north of Spruce Creek and near Dunlawton. Toward the end of 1866, Hawks name the colony Port Orange.
At noon on April 26, 1867, Port Orange was recognized with a post office.
The lumber company fell on hard times, however, and closed in 1869. The sawmill was damaged and never able to be fully functional. The company treasurer absconded with the money. Most of the residents left the area to return to their home states or find work in other parts of Florida. The two schools which had been built closed.
The nine pioneers who remained made the African American settlement of Freemanville. With no lumber to build houses, people had to live in huts. There were a few residents who prospered. One family, Henry and Hanna Toliver, grew numerous crops that flourished. The Toliver homestead became the nucleus of the colony. Members of the Freeman family intermarried with the Tolivers, producing many children. The Freeman settlement took its name from the Freeman family. In the 1880s, the residents were either on the Toliver homestead or lived adjacent to it. The Tolivers lived close to the railroad tracks, which brought work to families.
"Freemanville grew during the 1880s," Lempel said. "As a new century dawned, the hamlet made its mark in the oyster business."
An oyster house was opened on U.S. 1 and the Halifax River, which brought tourists to Port Orange. By the 1920s, there were homes on both sides of U.S. 1, two school houses and two churches.
"It is not surprising the town would have two churches because of the tremendous importance of the church in African American history," Lempel said. "Blacks were discriminated against and excluded from almost everything. The century after slavery was abolished had complete segregation and discrimination. The early 1920s particularly were a violent period."
The community of Freemanville became a place of safety and insulation for African Americans.
"Why Freemanville existed is because blacks were fearful of living near whites in many cases; fearful and restricted in terms of what jobs they could get," Lempel said. "Opportunities for employment were limited, and there was the ever present fear of violence. That was the reality of what life was like for African Americans in the early 20th century. It is why black communities insulated themselves from white communities. They made a world for themselves."
Mt. Moriah Baptist Church is the only structure left from the original settlement. The church is in dire need of a new roof. Anyone who would like to contribute to the church fund to replace the roof should get in touch with Pastor Trudy Crusco.
Sarah Crum and Makilah Slaughter, both sopranos from the Bethune-Cookman University Music Outreach Program, belted out renditions of “Guide My Feet,” and “Fi-yer” that moved the audience. Children gathered to sing, “Fill Me Up.”
Chaplin Sheila Turner spoke of how long she had been in Port Orange and took the gathering down memory lane with places that used to be but are now other businesses.
Pastor Trudy Crusco closed the celebration with prayer and a special blessing for all who attended. Catered refreshments rounded out the celebration. She gave a special thank you to Burnette and Public Information Officer Christine Martindale for orchestrating the event.