A History of Racial & Ethnic (In)Equity in West Palm Beach

aa”We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.

Below, we share some of the history of racial and ethnic inequity in West Palm Beach. We also describe local efforts to “bend the arc towards justice.” Learning about history gives us insight into the root causes of the racial and ethnic disparities we see today.

We also acknowledge local “griots” (memory keepers), who for years have aimed to preserve and share an under-recognized history of the city, including the contributions and struggles of African Americans and others often written out of (or misrepresented in) official narratives. These men and women have saved photographs, published books, published newsletters, and created archives and museum spaces. They have told stories at events, on video, online and in print.

Watch this video to learn about West Palm Beach resident Edith Bush, who reminds us to remember the past.

We also encourage you to listen to the first episode of Divided by Design, a podcast of the E Pluribus Unum (EPU) Fund. EPU was formed on the premise that we must confront the issue of race head-on if we are to move forward. Mayor Keith James is in the first cohort of UNUM Fellows.

The podcast kicks off with discussions exploring the “truth” in our history, including the history of racial inequality in the U.S.; how systemic racism has divided and crippled this country; and the need for audacious leadership to create the change that we all desperately need to be a just and equitable America. Learn about some of the periods and events in our history that have laid the foundation for the systems that continue to perpetuate racism and oppress people of color in the U.S, including the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. You’ll also hear from residents across the South on how racism impacts their daily lives. Featuring Dr. Eddie Glaude, Angela Glover Blackwell, Danyelle Solomon, Dr. Andre Perry, and more.

Early Florida

Black Civil War Re-Enactor (Florida)

Early Floridians Early indigenous peoples in southeast Florida included the Jeaga, Jobe, Ais and Tequesta. According to archaeological evidence, Jaegas settled in modern-day Palm Beach County at least 5,000 years ago. The Spanish arrive in 1519, when Juan Ponce de León makes landfall at the Jupiter Inlet. In 1519, about 20,000 Native peoples live in South Florida.1693 Enslaved Africans are fleeing from Carolina plantations to Florida. Those who manage to evade slave hunters cross the St. Mary's River to gain freedom in Indian territory. The river serves as the border between British and...

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Florida After the Civil War: Reconstruction, 1865-1876

Josiah Walls

The period of Reconstruction, which begins in 1865 after the ending of the Civil War, is a post-war moment when the United States – both the general population and its elected officials – works to establish a government and laws that pay heed to the ending of slavery. We also highly recommend reading the article titled, "The Palm Beaches During Reconstruction: 1865-76": the little-known history of our West Palm Beach's inclusion in a proposed New Liberia territorial homeland for freed African slaves following the Civil War. The article is written by Palm Beach historian Robert Davidsson,...

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The Styx and Early West Palm Beach (Late 19th-Early 20th Century)

The Styx, West Palm Beach

Black Settlement of Southeastern Florida In the late 19th century, Standard Oil tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler brings the Florida East Coast Railway from West Palm Beach to Miami. African Americans laborers help construct the railroad tracks. Palm Beach County is still part of Brevard, St. Lucie and Dade counties in the second half of the 19th century; it is not established as a separate county until 1909. Miami and West Palm beach become Florida's two largest urban centers. Blacks from the Deep South are recruited to work the farms in Florida's agricultural areas. Those who live in rural...

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West Palm Beach 1920s-1950s

Industrial High School

1920s: Building a Community of Civil Rights LeadersIn the first half of the 20th century, most affluent African Americans of West Palm Beach live in the Freshwater District, in houses built by local African American contractors and designed by Hazel Augustus, the city’s first African American architect. Business owners in West Palm Beach include Dr. Thomas LeRoy Jefferson, the first black medical doctor and Dr. Warren Hale Collie, one of the first black dentists to practice in Palm Beach County. Collie is a veteran of World War I, where he served in France as a dentist with the 808th...

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West Palm Beach 1960s-1980s

Rental Housing clip

1960s: Housing DividesIn the 1960s, the West Palm Beach Housing Agency begins to buy property in Pleasant City, flooding it with scattered-site housing for income-restricted residents: 132 apartments in 33 quadplexes. Residents are stereotyped as drug addicts and welfare mothers. According to former West Palm Beach Mayor Joel Daves, "The authority brought all these low-income people into a neighborhood that was already on the way down and washed their hands of it. The authority let the tenants basically trash everything."  In remarks about the project in 2002, Isaac "Ike" Robinson Jr.,...

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