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West Ocala History

 The first residents of Marion County, Florida were likely the Timucua Indians, who ocupied what they called "Ocali" in the vicinity of present-day Ocala. 

In the mid-sixteenth century, Hernando de Soto of Spain reportedly established a temporary campsite in North Central Florida among a group of Native Americans. The Timucua Indians were conquered by the Carolina Yamasee in 1715 who were followed by the Seminoles in 1750. After a brief period of British occupation, Florida reverted to Spain and land grants were sold to those Spanish citizens who would settle in Florida. From 1817 to 1818, eleven land grants were made in Marion County. When the United States acquired Florida in 1821, the population of Marion County consisted largely of Native Americans and African Americans. Settlements of white European Americans did not occur until after an 1823 treaty was passed that restricted Native Americans to the southern portion of Florida.

In 1827, Fort King was constructed just east of present-day Ocala. The fort continued to be occupied until the 1840s. Marion County was established on March 25, 1844 and Fort King was named its county seat. One year later, Florida achieved statehood. The first plat of Ocala was created in March of 1846 by David Bruton, the Marion County Engineer. At this time, Ocala replaced Fort King as the county seat. The city originally consisted of 80 blocks situated around a public square that was reserved for the construction of the county courthouse. In 1847, Marion County received its first post office and the first newspaper was started.

The census of 1850 indicates that African Americans accounted for 38% of the population of Marion County. By 1860, this percentage had jumped to 62%. Slaves comprised the labor force that supported the ante-bellum plantation economy and African Americans lived mainly on several large plantations. Main crops included corn, sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco.

On January 10, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union. During the Civil War, Marion County, with its large workforce, served as a production center, providing food, clothing, and arms to the Confederate Army. The Emancipation Proclamation of September 23, 1862 did not lead to a large-scale exodus from the plantations since many slaves were unaware of the edict. After the war ended in 1865, African Americans continued to live in Marion County as free persons. Reconstruction, 1866-1879 Immediately following the war, lawlessness and chaos reigned. Intimidation tactics by former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers throughout Florida caused the Federal government to dispatch troops to the region. The Freedman’s Bureau was created in 1865 to assist the former slave population. Many remained on the plantation and were given compensation for their employment. Most left and migrated to Florida’s more populated areas. Efforts were begun to insure enfranchisement of the African-American population but these were diluted by the enactment of the so-called "Black Codes" laws specifically intended for African-Americans. Restrictions upon the former slave population included vagrancy laws, regulation of weapons, and provisions for schools to be paid for by a tax on African-American males. Due to these actions, the Federal government again put Florida under military rule until July 25, 1868 when it was officially re-admitted into the Union.

The Freedman's Bureau encouraged former slaves to submit applications to receive land under the Homestead Act of 1866. This law ended all cash sales of land in five public land states of the South and reserved the land for homesteaders. Ex-Confederates were not eligible. Over 3,000 African Americans filed claims in Florida but they were often intimidated by the white population and many times, abandoned the land.

The Bureau also promoted education among the former slave population and opened 87 schools around Florida. James H. Howard, a former slave owner, donated a parcel of land on the corner of Osceola and Third Streets for the first African American school in Ocala. Financial support for Howard Academy, as well as teachers, came from the north. In Ocala, a branch of the Freedman’s Bureau was opened in 1867. A voter registration of freedmen at the time included the surnames Alexander, Hampton, Taylor, Moseley, Gadsden, Gardner, and Owens.

African Americans in Ocala also began to organize separate churches shortly after the war. In 1866, the entire black membership of the Baptist Church, some 90 persons, withdrew to form the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. The Church’s first paster was Samuel Small, who had been a slave on the Osceola Plantation. Mt. Zion was also organized during this period by Tom Long, a circuit rider who traveled by horseback through Florida for the A.M.E. church.

On April 20, 1867, a meeting of 1000 former slaves was held in Ocala. There, Reverend Small appealed to the crowd to educate themselves and use their freedom wisely. In 1869, a Republican appointee, Edward Barker, took the office of Judge of Probate and head of the local Freedmen’s Bureau. Barker organized a company of black militia to enforce his rulings and former slaves were quickly appointed and elected to county offices.

In Ocala and throughout Florida, African Americans made significant advances during the Reconstruction period. In 1870, the black population made up 73% of Marion County, establishing an unquestionable majority. In 1872, 65% of registered voters in Marion County were black. As early as 1868, African Americans were serving in public office. In 1868, M.A. Clouts was appointed Sheriff and by the end of the Reconstruction period in 1879, Marion County had sent seven black representatives to the Florida House including Reverend Samuel Small, Scipio Jasper, Birch Gibson, J. Simpson, and Singleton Coleman. One distinguished representative, Tom Long who’d helped organize Mt. Zion, introduced a bill establishing free public schools in Florida.

Without railroads and telegraph, Ocala was fairly isolated in the first half of the nineteenth century. Steamboats were first introduced in Florida in the 1820s and by the 1870s they were the main mode of transportation. By this period, the majority of steamboat pilots on the Ocklawaha River were African Americans. The Ocklawaha River was not only the main commercial shipping line but also brought tourists to Marion County. The famed Ocklawaha run to Silver Springs was a "must-see" for tourists visiting Florida. As its popularity grew, and other tourist centers in Florida prospered, visitors began moving to the State. Post-Reconstruction, 1880-1897. In 1876, the Atlantic Gulf West India Transit Company established a railroad between Waldo and Ocala. This led to a boom in commercial trade as well as providing easy access for visitors. By the 1880s, the expanding railroads were taking business away from the steamers. The railroads resulted in a population increase in Marion County and the development of railroad towns near train stops. The entire state benefited from this and between 1880 and 1885, the state experienced a population growth of 25%.

Also developing was the citrus industry, which boomed in Marion County between 1870 and the Great Freeze of 1895. After the freeze, farmers began to diversify their crops but other industries such as tourism, phosphate, and real estate pumped dollars and people into Ocala and Marion County. In 1888, Ocala suffered a setback when a yellow fever epidemic raged in Tampa and Jacksonville. Visitors were forbidden in the city. Another tragedy struck when a downtown fire destroyed most of the major buildings in Ocala in 1883. By 1887, buildings were reconstructed in brick, granite, and metal. Within five years, Ocala was being dubbed "The Brick City. "

West Ocala 

By this period, Ocala was beginning to expand outside of its original city limits. The majority of African American residents began to settle west of the downtown core. Several rail lines ran north-south and east-west through the neighborhood. Ocala’s main east-west thoroughfare, Broadway (now Silver Springs Boulevard), was the commercial heart of downtown. The street was home to many of Ocala’s most prosperous African American businessmen and leaders.

African American Commercial Enterprises 

Despite a few setbacks, Ocala was experiencing a growth in population, visitation, and commercial and agricultural interests. Some of Ocala’s most distinguished African-Americans lived, went to school, and worked in West Ocala. In 1881, F.P. Gadsden organized the Ocala Bazaar, which was located on South Magnolia Street near the courthouse. The Ocala Bazaar became the largest store of its kind in Ocala, at one point employing 20 clerks to serve both both black and white customers. In 1888, Gadsden was elected City Treasurer and Tax Collector and served for four years. In 1903, he was elected to City Council. Gadsden made his home in West Ocala in a large home in the 400 block.

In 1891, West Ocala residents celebrated a historical event when the Metropolitan Realty and Investment Company was organized by Mr. Gadsden with several partners. It was the first African-American corporation to be granted a charter by the State of Florida. The company was originally a building loan corporation but later added a realty investment company.

Education in West Ocala 

Schools for African Americans in Marion County continued to grow and prosper in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. By 1880, Howard Academy was run by African American teachers. In 1886, Wesley Wilkerson was appointed Supervisor of Marion County Negro Schools and served in that post until 1914. Tragedy struck when Howard Academy was destroyed by fire in 1887. A new school was built at the corner of Adams (NW 2nd Street) and Bay (NW 7th Avenue). The two-story building was constructed at a cost of $1600.00. By 1891, Marion County had 38 black schools with a total of 2476 students. In 1893, the Emerson Memorial Home and School described as an "Industrial School for Colored Girls" was located at the corner of Madison (now NW 4th Street) and 23rd Street (now NW 12th Avenue). By 1927, it was called the Baptist Theological Seminary.

Florida International and Semi-Tropical Exposition 

In the late 1880s, expositions grew in popularity around the U.S. They offered communities an opportunity to promote their region by attracting visitors from all over the country. Agricultural products, tourist attractions, and industry were all represented at the expositions. In 1888, Florida’s International and Semi-Tropical Exposition was held in Jacksonville. The next year, Ocala sponsored the event.  

In January of 1889, the Exhibition Hall was constructed just west of the city limits along West Broadway, between 22nd and 24th Avenues. The Hall housed horticultural and agricultural products, natural curiosities, and products from every industry. The Hall sat on 40 acres of grounds with a panorama of tropical plants, flowers, rustic arbors, rockeries, and fountains. A band played music there three times a week and the dance floor was said to the largest in the South. West Broadway was temporarily renamed "Exposition Street." The hall displayed horticultural and agricultural products of Marion County, Marti City and "The Harlem of Ocala".

In the late nineteenth century, promotional literature touted West Ocala as similar to "New York’s Harlem…the coming popular city district for fashionable residence." It described the area as having electric lights, city water and fire protection, and a street railway. It described in detail the Exposition Hall and the area surrounding it.

Included near the Hall was a burgeoning cigar village. When the Exposition Hall opened in 1889, Cuban workers from Tampa were employed to demonstrate cigar making. Shortly after, several cigar factories were constructed just west of the Exposition building. This area originally called called "Havanatown." The cigar village was bordered by N.W. 4th Street, Martin Luther King Blvd., S.W. 24th Avenue and S.W. 7th Place. The area was later named "Marti City" after a visit there by Cuban patriot Jose Marti. On the southwest corner of Osceola and 3rd Street was a factory for cigar boxes. By 1893, a street railway extended along Broadway to the cigar village. Marti City was described as a prosperous and important suburb with five large cigar factories, 100 dwellings, and a large Cuban population. The La Criolla Cigar Manufacturing Company was located on the corner of NW 27th Street (now NW 20th Avenue) and Warren Avenue, just north of Broadway. The J. Vidal Cruz & Company was located on Felix Varela Street and Broadway. Between 1889 and 1906, 13 cigar factories were located in Marti City.

Marti City is shown vividly on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1895. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company began mapping American’s cities in an attempt to provide accurate information to insurance companies. The Sanborn Company first mapped Ocala in 1881, however the area that encompassed West Ocala was not settled enough to justify inclusion in the maps. Additionally, this area was located outside the city limits. In 1885, West Ocala was still not covered except for Marti City.

One of West Ocala’s most celebrated citizens began to thrive during this period. Levi Alexander, a native of Virginia, moved to Ocala and started his contracting business in the late nineteenth century. When his son Levi, Jr. graduated from college as an architect, the business name was changed to L. Alexander & Son. In 1891, Levi Alexander, Sr. designed and built the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church located on South Magnolia. The building still stands today and is the only surviving brick nineteenth century religious building in Ocala. The Alexanders lived on West Broadway.

Unfortunately, the nineteenth century ended in a dismal state. The Great Freeze of 1894 and 1895 had ruined Marion County’s citrus crop. This devastating event also had a lasting impact on the cigar business. The failure of the citrus crop threw Marion County into a depression for a few years and consequently tobacco farmers were adversely affected. By 1909, Marti City was abandoned by workers who moved to Tampa and Miami to find work.

Turn-of-the-Century, 1898-1921 

In 1900, Marion County’s population was 24,402 of which 61% were black. However by 1906, West Ocala still did not have enough resources to justify a significant inclusion in the Sanborn Maps. A small portion of the West Ocala area west of Pine Street and surrounding Broadway does give an idea of the types of dwellings that characterized the area. Houses tended to be scattered and irregular the farther they were away from Broadway. However, the houses along Broadway tended to be very large -- 2-3 stories. The Savoy can also be seen at the corner of Pine and Broadway. To the north of Broadway, the buildings were modest and the block encompassed between North (Silver Springs Place), Pine Street, and North 1st shows a grouping of dwellings labeled "Negro Quarters."

The economy’s downturn was exacerbated by the failure of the much anticipated phosphate boom in Marion County. However, other industries such as naval stores, turpentine, and lumber were burgeoning and employed the majority of Marion County’s large African-American workforce. In 1912, the H.A. Fausett Planing Mill was situated at the corner of Broadway and 22nd Street (now NW 11th Avenue). The railroads also helped keep Ocala going during the down years. By the early 1900s, the rail line that ran east-west at NW 5th Street was owned by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The Seaboard Air Line Railroad operated the line that ran north-south near Pine Avenue. The farthest north-south route to the west was operated by the Ocala Southwestern.

Marion County began to diversify its crops after the failure of the citrus crop. To boost the growing agricultural prospects of livestock, cotton, tobacco, and vegetables, the Marion County Fair was established at the western edge of Ocala. The fairgrounds included a racetrack, exhibition buildings, and livestock sheds. The fair also attracted national figures including Booker T. Washington, who gave a speech there in 1912.

By 1914, black residents were said to be some of the most prosperous in the South. African American businesses lined West Broadway from Magnolia to 16th Avenue. But black-owned businesses were not limited to the West Ocala area. The Ocala Bazaar was thriving downtown as was a new black-owned hotel. George Giles cotton gin had been located downtown since at least 1906 through 1912.

West Ocala had become so populated that the Sanborn Map Company had mapped out large portions of the area from Pine Street past the Seaboard Air Railroad and to the Ocala Southwestern Railroad. Some areas north of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad were also included. Also noted were a few important buildings in the West Ocala area that had been excluded from previous indices including Howard Academy, Covenant Baptist Church, Emerson Industrial Home and School, Hopewell Baptist Church, and the Primitive Baptist Church. As one traveled along Broadway and headed west, many of the house were very large. Even side streets and those near the main thoroughfare were characterized by two-story residences. Across from Howard Academy to the east, houses were also two-story. As one traveled several blocks north and south of Broadway, the houses became smaller and more widespread. In fact, at least one farm including ancillary barns and hay houses was depicted north of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.

African American Businesses Thrive 

The year 1914 was another landmark year when the first African-American bank was incorporated in the State of Florida. The Metropolitan Savings Bank was organized with a capital stock of $25,000 and was located in Ocala’s central business district. Its president was West Ocala resident, F.P. Gadsden. Ocala’s "Merchant Prince," Gibbs Crompton also began Crompton’s Dry Goods Store located on West Broadway.

Religion and Education in West Ocala 

As the population in West Ocala grew, churches were organized to serve the local community. In 1899, the Covenant Missionary Baptist Church was located at 606 W. Broadway and in 1906 the Great Hopewell Baptist Church was situated at 515 NW 6th Terrace.

At Howard Academy, enrollment was up and space was desperately needed. A separate elementary school was planned and the contract given to Levi Alexander. Howard Academy continued to educate many of Florida’s future leaders including Effie Carrie Mitchell, who was the first African-American woman to practice medicine in Florida. She operated a drug store until her marriage to Dr. Hampton, another Howard Academy graduate. The couple, one of Ocala’s most highly respected, lived on Magnolia Street.

Land Boom Period, 1921-1928 

The rapid growth period of the 1920s took place primarily in South Florida but the effects of this so-called Boom Period reached every corner of the state. All of Florida benefited from the unprecedented influx of money and people, which accompanied the land boom. Many factors contributed to the boom including mild winter climate advertised extensively through the nation, the use of the automobile, the increased mobility of Americans, and Florida’s lack of a state income tax or inheritance tax. In 1920, Florida citizens totaled just under a million but by 1925 this number had increased to almost 1.3 million.

By 1924, the West Ocala area was substantially settled. Most of the dwellings were characterized by one-story wood structures. Along Broadway, lots continued to fill up with many one-story buildings constructed near to the railroad track. The H.A. Fausett Planing Mill at the corner of 22nd Street (now NW 11th Avenue) and Broadway was converted into a residence and the Fausett Store was constructed on the opposite corner.

Church life and education for Marion County African Americans continued to strengthen. By 1928, Ocala had 11 African American churches with members totaling 1079. The largest churches were Mt. Zion and Mt. Moriah. In 1928, 3,272 African American children attended school throughout the county. At Howard Academy, 806 children were taught by a total of 7 teachers.

Even though African Americans continued to make strides, their population in Marion County had decreased. African Americans made up almost 40% of Ocala’s population and about 50% of the county population. Their political power was also waning. Democrats had gradually assumed power from the Republicans. By 1920, only one African American in the state still held an important office – City Treasurer in Ocala.

To serve the influx of visitors to the state, the development of the highway system also came to fruition during this period. One of the first roads to be paved was US 301, which roughly followed the 100-mile trail ridge and the ancient Alachua Trail. It entered Marion County and connected to US 441 to provide easy access to the city.

Medical Care in West Ocala 

The 1920s saw a rise in the number of African Americans entering professional fields. Howard Academy had been the training ground for many future doctors, businessman, and political leaders. In 1925, Dr. R.S. Hughes opened the American National Thrift Association Hospital, which was the only facility to treat African Americans for hundreds of miles. Located on West Broadway and Pine Street, the hospital not only served residents of West Ocala but of greater Marion County and beyond. Dr. Nathaniel Hawthorne Jones and Dr. E.E. Lamb also had their offices on West Broadway during the 1920s. Black-run businesses extended west from Magnolia Street to 16th Avenue.

Businesses in West Ocala 

One of West Ocala’s most memorable residents was Mrs. Mattie J. Shaw who started The Florida Watchman newspaper in 1925. Mrs. Shaw ran her own printing presses and reported on local community and church activities of West Ocala. At the time, Mrs. Shaw was the only African American woman in the state who solely owned and operated a printing business. The newspaper was originally housed in a building located to the north of 4th Street, across from Howard Academy.

The Great Depression Era, 1929-1940 

In 1925, a series of unrelated events combined together to mark the beginning of the end of the Boom Period. Real estate speculation inflated prices, transportation services could not keep up with the need to move building supplies, and Florida began to be depicted negatively in northern papers. When the 1926 hurricane struck South Florida in September, it sealed the fate of the period. Although the northern part of Florida was not as severely hit by the economic crises initially, the onslaught of the Great Depression resulted in a severe decline in property values, local governments went bankrupt, and unemployment skyrocketed. African-American owned businesses in Ocala also suffered. The Metropolitan Savings Bank and the Metropolitan Realty and Investment Company closed their doors in 1928. The Ocala Bazaar closed in 1929.

The African-American majority in the county continued to decline. By 1930, the black population accounted for only 49% of the population – down from 61% in 1900. In 1936, only 500 African Americans were registered to vote due in large part to the poll tax and continued Jim Crow laws.

World War II and Aftermath 

The 1940s, particularly after the War, brought in a new era for Ocala. War preparations resulted in an economic boom that brought Florida and the rest of the country out of the Great Depression. In 1941, a primary flight training school was opened at Ocala’s municipal airport. The relocation of soldiers boosted the local economy.

Sadly, in 1943 the African-American hospital on West Broadway was closed after the death of Dr. Hughes. Blacks could be treated at the main hospital in town but were segregated until the 1960s.

Rapid growth after World War II resulted in a 46% population increase for the decade after the war. Many soldiers and their families remained in Florida after the war, which was part of a larger migration boom in the state. Roadways were constructed and improved all over the state. For the fast growing tourism industry, Florida erected welcome stations and numerous motels and retail stores dotted the main routes through Florida. Numerous tourism studies were undertaken and improvements made to established attractions to accommodate the growing numbers of visitors. By 1950, Silver Springs catered largely to white tourists but had established an area called Paradise Park for its African American guests. This segregated area was about ½ mile southeast of the main spring and included a bathing area and docks for glass bottom boats. One tourism study recommended that Silver Springs erect housing for its African American visitors to help boost its visitation.

West Ocala rapidly changed during this period. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 allowed the use of federal funds in acquiring right-of-ways for projects to be built in the next five years. Upgrading highway systems in the late 1950s was a priority for President Eisenhower. During this period, West Broadway was widened and many businesses and residents were lost. Modifying this street into a faster thoroughfare bisected the neighborhood and drastically altered the character of the area. Some of West Ocala’s most beautiful and prestigious homes were destroyed. The hospital was demolished as well as other landmarks.

Late Twentieth Century 

In the late 1970s, Marion County began to take a closer look at its historic resources. The Mt. Zion Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1981, the Historical and Archaeological Survey of Marion County was prepared by the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council. In 1989, the first survey to solely concentrate on the West Ocala area was undertaken with funds from the City of Ocala and its Community Development Block Grant Program. Recommendations from the report included a nomination of part of the area to the National Register of Historic Places. It also deemed that Howard Academy was potentially eligible for individual listing on the Register.

Other efforts to recognize West Ocala’s history including the Marti City historical marker erected by the Cuban American community of Marion County. The marker is located in Tuscawilla Park about 2 miles northeast of Marti City. Chesnut Cemetery was receiving recognition as the final resting place for many of West Ocala’s most prominent citizens. The cemetery had suffered from neglect over the years but civic groups now tend to its care.

In 2000, the City of Ocala undertook a study of West Ocala that expanded upon the 1989 survey. Over 350 historic resources located in the West Ocala area were surveyed and a National Register nomination was prepared for the core of the historic neighborhood. This history was compiled as part of that project.



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