The Black and White of Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL

This blog has proven hard to write. I am busy with both personal and family responsibilities and projects but I think also because it is painful to dig into activities of the past that don’t show off a place you feel attached to in the best light. But I am not sure how we as humans can grow and get past old wounds and outdated behaviors if we don’t examine them both in the context of history and the present and try to learn from them. It might be good to start with a little personal context.

My grandfather was born in 1892 in Millview, Escambia Co, FL. At that time, his family owned 159 acres in Baldwin Co, AL, and his father was working in the lumber industry. It appears they made the move back to Oak Grove between 1896 and 1900. Richmond Barrow, my grandfather’s grandfather died in 1896 leaving some of his large land holdings to his son John Jesse, Sr. And in 1900 the youngest son of John Jesse, Sr and his wife Lucennie HINOTE BARROW was born in Oak Grove. At this time in the history of Oak Grove, it was a stable and mixed-race community. There was a total of 600 people (305 females and 295 males) in 110 households in the 1900 census for the area on the west side of the river over to where Baker Highway is today and down to where Peadentown was located. Of those 600 souls, 226 were Black (38%) and 374 were White (62%). While some of the Black families did move into the area after the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States), it seems clear by looking at the surnames we find among the Black families that they were freed after the War from some of the White families in the area. The surnames we find are HART, LEWIS, SPEARS, McWILLIAMS, MASSEY, HUTCHINSON, FOWLER, GARTMAN, HARRISON, HENDRIETH, STEELE, WALLS, MATHEWS, JETT, LEE, DOLEMAN, WILKISON/WILKINSON, FEAGIN, MOORE, COBB, CAWTHORN, and KINNEY. More importantly from a community perspective, the Black families were scattered around the community in small groupings and not in just one location.

 

Several other observations lend themselves to seeing this as a stable, multi-racial community post-Civil War. The following Black heads of household owned their farms free of mortgage: Charles LEWIS, Richard HENDRICK, Jerry HART, William COTTON, Peter STEELE, Arthur GARTMAN, Isaac H. HARRISON, Sepp HENDRIETH, Fran[k?] STEELE, William WALLS, Daniel MATHEWS, William H. HARRISON, John JETT, Nathan LEE, Martin LEE, [?] WILKINSON, Robert MOORE, and Sipp HENDRIETH. The rest of the Black families either owned a house free of mortgage, owned a house with a mortgage or rented a house or farm. While I am still in the process of extracting land records for Oak Grove’s earlier years, one family that I know something about is Isaac H. and Rosilla HARRISON. They owned a fair amount of property above where the current Yellow River Baptist Church is located and below Horse Creek. In fact, Dugald STEWART transferred 20 acres as part of an indenture of land that included Stewart Cemetery to Rosilla Harrison in 1884. The Harrisons sold the 4 acres that is Stewart Cemetery to Yellow River Baptist Church in 1901. In 1909 and 1910, all of the Harrison property was sold for taxes. Which brings us to the event this blog will attempt to lay out.

As mentioned above, my grandfather’s family likely moved back to Oak Grove between the time that my grandfather was 4 to 8 years old. The property they settled on had belonged to Richmond Barrow. Since my grandfather did not remember ever seeing his grandfather, I believe the family did not move back to Oak Grove until after Richmond’s death. According to my grandfather, his best friend was a young boy who lived somewhere close by and was a member of one of the Black families in the area. Granddaddy said they played together any time they didn’t have to work around their respective family farm. Even though I met this man many years later at my Grandfather’s house, I can not recall his name. But that’s getting ahead of the story. These two young men grew up together and continued to interact regularly until Granddaddy went off to Madison Normal College in 1913.

From my efforts to sort out what happened to the Black families of Oak Grove, starting with a couple of discussions with my Grandfather back in the 70s, and resulting in recent research in census and land records, I’ve been able to put the following chronology together:

Sometime between 1910 and 1920 a family purchased acreage in Oak Grove in and around Yellow River Baptist Church and Stewart Cemetery, some of which appears to have been owned by the HARRISONs (mentioned above). This new family to the area was in Geneva Co, AL in 1910 and in Okaloosa Co, FL in 1920. The family that settled in Okaloosa Co. was an older man and woman and five of their older children. I do know this family’s surname but I am not going to name them here. This story gets ugly and other than what I’ve been told by my grandfather and what I’ve read in Spencer Spears book and told by another descendant of a family from the area, I don’t have absolute proof that any of the children or parents were guilty of a crime, just that there was a crime and based on Mr. Spears book, they may not have been alone in committing this violence. Also, I know some of the descendants of this family and know them to be good people who might be hurt by an unproven accusation.

This family bought property from several of the surrounding families and eventually owned quite a bit of land in the general area of Yellow River Church Rd. The parents were both deceased by 1940. Three of the boys and a sister owned property and lived in the area, farming and according to interviews of several of the older members of the community at least one of them did a bit of Oak Grove bootlegging (see the blog on bootlegging in the area). The bootlegging may have been a factor in what happened in the early 1920s. According to one interviewee who had stories of this event passed down through his family, this family who moved into the area wanted more control over the fine bootleg produced from the clean, sweet waters in the Oak Grove area and this led to actively threatening and eventually violently confronting the Black families in the immediate area. One of those families was my grandfather’s friend.

GDaddylastreunion

My Grandfather at 84 enjoying some of the family singing at our last family reunion (1976) before he died.

By the time I came along, my grandfather was generally laid back and seldom raised his voice. But both he and several of his children confirmed that he had been a tough dude in his younger days. He boxed a bit, and of course, worked on a farm daily and helped his father run the grist mill in the area. Even into his 80s he could sit down on the ground and stand up with no help.  So, when he told me that he had to just stay away from this family as much as possible because he was afraid he might hurt the one (as in shooting him) he thought had been behind the violence, I was more than a bit surprised. According to Spencer Spears, the harassment and threats turned to violence one night with a lot of gunfire. Many of the Black families had had enough and moved out of the immediate area. Some went north, some went west and some went south.

Now, the irony here is that these White and Black families had lived together, seemingly peacefully, for two generations when this happened. More than a few on both sides shared surnames, which likely means that prior to 1865 some in the White families held some in the Black families in slavery. And in some cases, I know that some of the Black residents were descended from some of the White residents because I was fortunate a few years ago to have the opportunity to talk to a distant cousin descended from the Reuben HART line (see my post on Reuben HART). Our initial phone conversation was spent sharing our respective family stories concerning this episode in Oak Grove history. I’ve often wondered if the various White families acknowledged, at least unspokenly, the connection by blood and that contributed to the stability of the inter-racial community. I know that the Black families were aware of the kinship, though there is no way to know if they did more than discuss it in the confines of their homes. Some of their descendants are still relatively close to the area and one told a cousin of mine that if we dug hard enough we would find we were all related. I would confirm that.

It would be good to keep in mind that while Blacks, in general, had to struggle for freedom in the South after the War, they at least had some rights on paper. But in many parts of the South, few owned property and homes and worked as farmers on their own land but were relegated to sharecropping, which was a losing financial proposition. That was not the case in Oak Grove. The early decades of the 20th century saw a lot of economic turmoil, dislocation, financial panics, and growing income inequality and increased activity from the KKK. Whether that contributed to what happened, we may never know.  We may only know that one night a significant section of the community was subjected to violence and as a result left the community behind.

My grandfather did not see his friend for many years and didn’t know what had happened to him. But in the early 70s lightning hit my grandparents house and did some damage in the kitchen. It was written up in the newspaper and a few days later my grandfather’s friend showed up at the doorstep and volunteered to help fix up the house. I believe he was a licensed electrician. They were able to re-ignite their friendship and he came back to visit several times over the next few years. On one of those visits, I was introduced to him. It was after he left that my grandfather shared what he knew about what happened that night and who he was sure was behind the violence.

It is my hope that my finished book on Oak Grove in Okaloosa County will include all of the families of the area, and what I can sort out of the impact of events on those families. That includes painful moments. I still have research around this story to fix it in time but I know that we can not learn from the past if we don’t discuss it out loud.

Until Next Time

Resources:

Poor Boy: The Facts of Life for the Young and the Old by Spencer Spears

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