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Mt. Moriah Baptist Church

Freemanville, the site of the first African-American community in Volusia County, remains generally unknown, but once a year those who cherish history gather in Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to celebrate this settlement that was nestled in what was annexed into the northeast portion of Port Orange several decades ago.

As late as the 1970’s, this quiet community was lined with dirt roads and recent memories of “Miss Baby” (Rosa Bugman) who would shoot rattlesnakes with a .22 and collect their rattles in a bag.

Today the streets of “Freemanville” can be considered to be a rectangle of roads just west of U.S. 1 in Port Orange, bordered on the south by West Ocean Avenue, on the west by Alexander Avenue, on the east by North Orange Avenue, and on the north by Valley Street, though the last remaining building is Mt. Moriah.

Each of the past two Februaries I’ve attended the Freemanville Day Celebration, sitting on the firm pews at Mt. Moriah (established in 1911 and rebuilt in 1956), listening to the history of Freemanville and reminiscences of those who have lived where cultural practices included savvy notions such as how Adam Freeman would keep his grassless yard neatly raked so the straight lines in the dirt yard would reveal if any snake or human intruder had come near his home.  Current Port Orange Mayor Allen Green who grew up in Port Orange says that residents of Freemanville also kept guinea hens that worked as “watchdogs,” sounding alarm with loud shrieks if anyone would come near.

Freemanville may have been named for the Freeman family–Adam, Major, Frank, and a sister, but their grandparents were not among the first settlers who had come to the area in 1865 immediately after the Civil War with John Milton Hawks who brought former Black Union soldiers and their families to the Ponce Inlet area to establish a sawmill business. Dr. Len Lempel, a Daytona State College history professor who specializes in local and Florida African-American history, has researched the beginnings of Freemanville, and I’ve learned so much from his presentations, including three (2009, 2011, and 2013) specifically about Freemanville, Hawks, and Esther Hawks who, like her husband, was a school-trained and certified physician.

Lempel’s research has noted that Esther established an integrated school in November 1866 for the sawmill workers’ children on the beach in the area of Ponce Inlet, and he relates that she wrote to The Freedmen’s Record that she and the students gathered “about a big fire” before the school was built. Lempel has also cited that 11 months later she wrote, “My school flourishes” and that her school included five white children, fifteen Blacks, and two “mulattoes”–the first integrated school in Volusia. Lempel lauds Esther Hill Hawks’s book A Woman Doctor’s Civil War Diary as well worth the reading, though it’s only about her pre-Freemanville years.

The failure of the sawmill enterprise was dramatically recalled by Joe Vetter, a local history re-enactor, at a May 2007 presentation “Touring Local History” which I attended. At it he said that when a boat carrying equipment and funding for the sawmill sank in 1866, thousands of 1866 silver dollars went to the bottom with the ship.

Lempel indicates that vital equipment was lost, and Hawks’s sawmill business was too big to be profitable and soon failed. In addition, the assistance from the Freedmen’s Bureau was inadequate, so the majority of the workers moved away or to the Port Orange mainland to form their own community. Of the approximately 1500 Blacks who had come, only 142 adults remained by 1867, and they supported themselves with farming, fishing, and working in orange groves of others. Hawks’s book East Coast of Florida says five or six families were still living in the area, and local historian Harold Cardwell has added, “What made the settlement survive was that they were able to find work in orange groves.”

Of those Black laborers who moved to the mainland, Lempel notes that among them were Henry and Anna Tolliver, who although they were both illiterate, became the most successful of the original Freemanville settlers, buying land enough to share their eight-acre homestead later with the 11 children they had had separately in marriages during the time when they had been slaves. Henry and others are buried in Freemanville’s Gadsden Cemetery (which I’ll talk about in the next blog post).

Local historians Priscilla and Harold Cardwell have added much to the history of Freemanville, especially when they were interviewed by Bethune-Cookman University professors Mary Corliss and Dorothy Dobbins for their short book A Free Man’s Dream: The Rise and Fall of a Community, Freemanville, Florida (2003) which I bought at the Halifax Historical Museum. The Cardwells report that in the 1890’s John Tolliver, son of Henry, sold the Tolliver land “back to Charles Daughtry” [sic] and that housing “lots were then traded and sold to build small cabins” in the horseshoe-shaped roads of Freemanville. John went on to successful endeavors, working as, what today would be called, an engineer. Lempel has researched John Tolliver’s two contracts with Daytona between 1879 and 1886 to “open” a portion of Ridgewood Avenue (later becoming part of today’s U.S. 1)–an accomplishment of local African-American business and engineering history that, thanks to Lempel, is recognized again today.

By 1870, the Freemanville area had 250 residents, and Lempel remarks that new jobs became available in the 1880’s when the Florida East Coast Railroad laid tracks close by Freemanville, but Corliss and Dobbins point out that when the railroad came to town, the Freemanville School was moved from the Dunlawton site to the north part of Port Orange’s Orange Avenue.

Hard times came again with the hard freezes of 1886 and the winter of 1894-95, killing many orange trees and reducing work prospects in the groves, which Lempel explains, caused many residents of Freemanville to move to Daytona to live in three now generally forgotten Black communities there–Waycross, Newtown, and Midway.

Priscilla and Harold Cardwell note that, according to their research, by 1910 only three families remained–Alexander, Smudge, and Drummond, but according to Lempel by the 1920’s Freemanville was at its largest, extending to both sides of two-laned Dixie Highway (later to become U.S 1). Freemanville, lying just north of Port Orange, by then had two churches, businesses, boardinghouses for Blacks, and the Freemanville School.

The years, however, whittled away at Freemanville, and the Cardwells have observed that residents left “to go to war or to find jobs” and that the community shrank to become what Harold Cardwell referred to as a “ghost settlement.”

In the next blog post, I will look into the reminiscences of those who lived in Freemanville 50 to 60 years ago, and I’ll relate what is known about the canals of the community and Freemanville’s Gadsden Cemetery.