Slavery in Florida

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Florida became United States territory in 1821. Up until then, the Spanish had ruled the land for almost three hundred years. When Florida achieved statehood, the total population was twelve thousand, the majority consisting of free blacks, fugitive slaves, or Seminole, Creek or Mikasuki Indians. Some blacks found the more relaxed racial climate to their liking. By the 1730s, Spanish Florida existed as a haven for runaway slaves from Georgia and the Carolinas. While the life of a slave in colonial Florida was not necessarily better than the life of a British slave in Virginia, the institutions of government and church offered them better legal protection and far greater opportunity for freedom.

By 1830, Middle Florida had emerged as the state’s “black belt”. The vast majority of slaves lived in this region, consisting of Jackson, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson and Madison Counties. Although cotton would come to be the main cash crop of Middle Florida, most slaveholders owning large areas grew sugarcane only for their own consumption. Planters often cultivated a variety of other crops other than their staple, such as corn, sweet potatoes, greens, squash, and okra.

On February 9, 1865 a twenty-two year old slave named Thomas was sold for fifty-five hundred dollars in Jefferson County, Florida. Life on a slave plantation improved greatly on the larger units as bondservants established extended kinship ties. Slave women often gave birth to their first children at young ages.  Sometimes, in order to keep slave families together, some masters allowed slaves the opportunity of selecting their new masters or heirs.

Religion served as a means of unifying the black community. In Florida, and other areas of the South, a mixture of Euro-Christian and African religious practices helped make life more bearable for slaves. They typically worshipped in the white-controlled churches of their masters. At Tampa’s Methodist church, some meetings were racially segregated, while others were not. Even though most sermons taught obedience, the slaves heard the message of equality before God. They came to believe firmly that the souls of slaves were as precious as those as whites. Enslaved blacks thus found within the church powerful reassurance of their humanity.

The relationship between slaves and their masters were imperative. Masters relied on their slaves as a means of survival in terms of profit. Agriculture was the main source of income for plantation owners in the South, and slaves were the ones who planted, maintained and harvested these crops in order to sell them. Slaves relied on their masters for food, shelter and protection. Most people in the antebellum era, especially poor whites, were extremely resentful towards blacks.

Slavery in Florida evolved from the Spanish, who were the first to settle there since its discovery in 1513. The Floridian slave system was much less harsh than the others (British, Portuguese) because of this Spanish influence.