BLACK AMERICAN HISTORY ON SANIBEL ISLAND
(Notes compiled by Alex Werner)
1920’s Sanibel – At the end of WWI, the Sanibel farming population was shrinking. To make matters worse for the farming community, the hurricanes of 1921 and 1926 devastated the land as salt-water surges killed the crops. The Tamiami Trail (US 41) was under construction, and railroads, workers, and good farmland from the drainage for the roadbed became available on the mainland. At the same time Big Agriculture convinced the state of Florida to drain the areas around Lake Okeechobee, leaving the Florida Everglades without re-nourishing fresh water. More fertile soil, railroads, workers, and the dredging of the Caloosahatchee opened the river with access to distribute local produce. This made farming more attractive on the mainland. As people left Sanibel, they put up their land for sale at reduced prices.
With the establishment of African American communities in Punta Gorda, Fort Myers, and Dunbar, it was only a matter of time before African Americans same to Sanibel. Isaiah Gavin and his family were the first, to be followed by the Johnsons out of St. Petersburg, the Walkers, Mitchells, Hursts, Bakers, Preschas, and Whitcarrs. These families were also affected by the 1926 hurricane and the falling population. By 1928, only about 90 people lived on Sanibel.
The black families, because of a lack of schooling for their children, periodically traveled between the island and Dunbar and stayed with relatives. The black families looked for a vacant building on Sanibel that could serve as a school. In 1914, a Baptist Church had been built on Sanibel by James Johnson, who because a church trustee. The church was owned by the Florida Baptist Convention of Jacksonville (FBCJ). Some stories say that the church informally opened its doors to black children for schooling as early as 1924. In 1927, James Johnson formally offered the church to the black families for use as a school, and two years later the Lee County Board of Public Instruction (LCBPI) purchased it from the FBCJ for $1,500. The land was deeded to the LCBPI by Elmer Petrow and John and Minnie Bruaw. Since there was a minimum of seven children required to operate the school, other black families moved to Sanibel, including the Jordans, Burns, and Carters. The School for Colored Children on Sanibel operated grades 1-8 as long as seven children were present. The teachers were Angelita George, Hazel Hammond, the Wardell sisters, and Lossie Pearson.
With the coming of WWII and the Sanibel population still around 90, it was difficult for the school to stay open. Black families would still travel to Dunbar, especially if their children were in grades 9-12. Eventually the school closed its doors. The Carter family lived in the building for a while, but it was in a state of disrepair when the Lee County School Board put both Sanibel schools up for sale in 1962. A new school had opened on Sanibel in 1963 but was segregated. Black children were required to attend school in Dunbar. In 1964, forward-thinking parents on Sanibel, led by both black and white mothers, convinced the Lee County School Board to integrate the Sanibel School. Thus, Sanibel became the first integrated school in Lee County. The old School for Colored Children was restored and has served as a bank; it is now Lily and Co. Jewelry Gallery. It is on the corner of Tarpon Bay and Island Inn Roads, across from the Bailey Shopping Center.
1930s to Present – With the end of any profitable farming by 1930, the owners of vacant farm buildings turned them into guesthouses, bed-and-breakfast lodging, and hotels. Sanibel and Captiva were advertised up north as a mecca for fishing and shelling on beautiful beaches. Along with other islands, Sanibel’s African American families turned to other trades and businesses to make a living. When the causeway opened in 1963, the island population was still about 90-110 people, but soon it began to increase. By 1974, when Sanibel incorporated as a city, there were 2,500 registered voters. Today, there are 6,500 property owners and 2,500 year-round residents. Sanibel continues to be home for the descendants of many of the early African American families.
Mary Bell was the original owner of the Seahorse Shop and Cottages. Many recall that it had the most unusual little outdoor market atmosphere with a row of doors that opened back, leaving the entire front adrift with the sounds and winds of the sea. It provided an outlet for the shell jewelry made by her husband. Today the Seahorse Shop is the second-oldest retail shop on the island. Mary’s involvement in numerous pre-city issues aided in the incorporation of Sanibel.
Mozella Jordan was a crusader for equality in education for all island children. Along with Mary Bell, she was instrumental in the Sanibel School becoming the first integrated campus in Lee County. Mozella and her husband were the first African American couple to purchase property on the island. Mozella was dedicated to her family and church. She became Sanibel’s most popular caterer.