10 Facts About African American History in Nassau County

September 28, 2022
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The following is an excerpt from the new African American Heritage Brochure:
The first African likely set foot on Amelia Island in 1526. A would-be conquistador named Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon secured a royal charter to explore and colonize the Atlantic coastal region north of what is now St. Augustine. He sailed with six ships and six hundred men, including a considerable number of African slaves. During his stop on Amelia Island, there is no doubt slaves went ashore to replenish water supplies and food.

Throughout the hundreds of years that African Americans lived and struggled on this tiny island, there has been a recurrent theme of patience, persistence, determination and African Americans striving for freedom and equality. African Americans have played an important part in Amelia Island’s history and continue to shape the future of our community.

Here are 10 facts about African American history that took place not only on Amelia Island, but throughout greater Nassau County.

 

1. PECK HIGH SCHOOL (now the Peck Center)

Photograph Courtesy of the Amelia Island Museum of History
Originally opened in 1885 as Colored School No. 1, this African American public school was renamed Peck High School in 1916 in honor of its longstanding principal, William H. Peck. It was originally a wooden structure on Atlantic and 11th Street, but relocated to the current brick building in 1928 through funding from the historic Rosenwald Foundation. Due to desegregation in Nassau County, its final class graduated in 1969. 516 South 10th St, Fernandina Beach

 

2. TRINITY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH


This church traces its roots back to 1822 when missionary Joseph C. Emerson arrived on the island and established Trinity’s first congregation. The current building was built in 1891, making Trinity the first brick African American church in Fernandina. 715 Ash St, Fernandina Beach

 

3. MERRICK-SIMMONS HOUSE (now a Private Residence)


This Greek Revival Style house is one of the last remaining pre-Civil War houses in Fernandina’s Historic District. It once belonged to Chloe Merrick, an agent of the National Freedmen’s Association from Syracuse. Merrick helped establish a Freedman’s School to educate formerly enslaved people and served African American orphans before and after the Civil War. This home was later purchased by John Simmons who owned the island’s ice plant and the long defunct trolley that ran from downtown to the beach. 102 South 10th St, Fernandina Beach

 

4. WILLIAMS HOUSE (now a Bed & Breakfast)


A modern-day bed-and-breakfast, this house was constructed in 1856 by a wealthy banker from Boston. It was subsequently purchased in 1858 by Marcellus A. Williams, a surveyor who worked for George Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Washington. During the Civil War, the house was used by Union troops as a headquarters and infirmary. According to local lore it also served as part of the Underground Railroad, hosting escaped slaves seeking freedom. 103 South 9th St, Fernandina Beach

 

5. MIDDLE PASSAGE MARKER IN OLD TOWN


After the 1808 Slave Importation Act barring new slaves from being transported to the United States, Spanish-owned Amelia Island became a major site for illegally smuggling slaves into Georgia. Located in Old Town on the Northern end of White Street in Fernandina Beach, this was the site that ships carrying enslaved people regularly docked and unloaded700 White St, Fernandina Beach

 

6. “NANA” DUNE (now a Protected Landmark)


Located in Historic American Beach and standing 60 feet high, “NaNa” is the tallest sand dune in Florida. It resides on the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and is an important habitat for the painted bunting and the threatened gopher tortoise. The preservation of this dune can be attributed to MaVynee Betsch, also known as the “Beach Lady.” She was the great-granddaughter of A. L. Lewis, as well as a staunch advocate for environmental concerns, particularly with relation to “NaNa” and the sea turtles. Ocean Blvd, American Beach

 

7. FRANKLINTOWN & FRANKLINTOWN CHAPEL


The Franklintown community was comprised of freedmen from the Samuel Harrison Plantation following the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. The chapel was established with help from Trinity Methodist Church in the year 1880. In 1949 the original building was demolished during the creation of A1A, and a new chapel was constructed close to the original site. In the 1970s, Union Carbide and the Amelia Island Company purchased the Franklintown properties. The 1949 chapel as well as the original 1892 chapel bell were relocated just west of American Beach. 2012 1415 Lewis St, American Beach

 

8. BRYANT ACADEMY (now Yulee Elementary School)


In the 1940's, the Nassau County School Board sought to improve the quality of the county’s African American schools. Nine wooden and outdated learning centers from across Callahan, Yulee, and Fernandina were consolidated into three larger and more modern schools. Because of these events Bryant Academy became the main elementary school in Yulee from its opening in 1950 until Nassau’s 1969 integration decree. It was named after the institution’s first principal, James Benjamin Bryant. 86063 Felmor Rd, Yulee

 

9. KING’S FERRY BOAT RAMP

Photograph Courtesy of the Historical Marker Database. Photo Credit: Tim Fillmon
The state marker chronicles the history of the sleepy riverside hamlet that was founded during Florida’s British period in the 1760s. In the 1850’s a mill was constructed in the area, primarily by African slave labor. After the Civil War ended many now free African Americans remained in King’s Ferry and built up the area into a bustling town which lasted until the 1920’s. 49127 Bill Johnson Rd, Hilliard

 

10. KINGSLEY PLANTATION (now a National Park)

Photograph Courtesy of Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
Kingsley Plantation operated from 1814 to 1837 under the ownership of Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley. Zephaniah, a Scottish slave owner, had purchased Anna, born an African princess in Senegal, as a slave. Freed by Zephaniah in 1811, Anna actively participated in the management of the plantation which primarily produced Sea Island cotton. The original plantation house as well as the remains of 25 slave cabins can still be viewed to this day. The Kingsley’s were frequent visitors to Amelia Island and, in fact, Anna lived in Old Town Fernandina for two years while the plantation house at Kingsley was being rebuilt. 11676 Palmetto Ave, Jacksonville

If you've enjoyed this snippet of the new African American Heritage Brochure, pick up a copy from the Welcome Center in the old train depot at the foot of Centre Street. These and many more historic sites are arranged in a suggested driving route to make touring easier.

Can't get enough Amelia Island history? Click Here for more!

 

 

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Located just off the coast of northeast Florida, Amelia Island is easy to reach, but hard to forget. With 13 miles of beautiful beaches, abundant native wildlife, and pristine waters, this barrier island has long been a beloved destination for visitors and residents alike.