LAKE WORTH — Groundbreaking research has revealed that what is now known as the city of Lake Worth in Palm Beach County was founded by a couple of former slaves, Fannie and Samuel James. They came from Northern Florida and Central Florida and settled in the Everglades region of Lake Worth around 1885, with just the clothes on their back and $50 in their pockets. Eventually, the couple became quite prosperous, owning at one time around 720 acres.
That’s according to the research of Ted Brownstein, local author and historian, who wrote the book, Pioneers of Jewell, the early name of the town.
Fannie James established and opened the post office in Jewell in 1889, making her the area’s first post mistress at a time when the mail was delivered by boat. Her original application to open the post office is on file at the National Archives.
Brownstein gave a visual presentation of Pioneers of Jewell on Saturday in honor of Black History Month at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Worth. He said he got most of his material about the James couple from the 1880 Census, on file in Tallahassee. “They got here before anyone else did,” Brownstein said. “And, when they came, race wasn’t an issue. Race only became an issue around the 1900s and, in 1912, Fannie had to move to the south side of town [due to segregation] but they were the first citizens here.”
Brownstein’s book chronicles the amazing journey of the Jameses and how they navigated the swamp land, buying and selling property and eventually becoming very prosperous and prominent. At one point, they made $6,000 on the sale of their land, which was a large sum in those days.
Brownstein tells how Fannie James learned to run a post office from a dear friend and former neighbor who was an AME minister and the post master of Tallahassee.
He says before the 1900s the Jameses got along well with their white neighbors, who actually testified on her behalf during a land dispute with a white man. Brownstein also takes a look at about a dozen previously unknown Jewell pioneers, at the Jameses’ financial success and their slavery background.
He takes a look also at the history of the segregated Osborne Colored Addition neighborhood, which is the hub of Lake Worth’s black community today and where New Hope Missionary Baptist Church is located.
He finally takes a look at the fate of the town called Jewell and its pioneers. Fannie James died in a car accident in 1915, six years after her husband died from an illness. Upon her death, an article was written about her in the local newspaper, which was virtually unheard of for a black person in those days, demonstrating her prominence. When she died, her estate was worth $12,000, or around $250,000 today.
“Everyone, black and white, should know this history,” said the Rev. Tony Cato, pastor of New Hope. “Our past speaks to our future. I don’t know if the vast majority of African Americans have any idea of the role African Americans played in founding the city of Lake Worth.”
A diverse crowd of about 75 showed up for the presentation. Theodoshia Jones Williams, an African American who was born and raised in Lake Worth, did not know this history of the area.
“This was a surprise to me – and I was born and raised right here in Lake Worth,” she said after the presentation. “It was an excellent presentation, very informative and enlightening.”
The city of Lake Worth was chartered in 1913 and, in 1913, the first school opened for whites only. In the 1920s, the city had a large Klu Klux Klan presence which Brownstein explores in his book.
Today, schools are fully integrated and Brownstein describes Lake Worth as a bustling, diverse city with a large African-merican community, along with large Haitian-American and Hispanic-American populations.
The Osborne Colored Addition, which was a neighborhood designated for blacks during segregation, is still the predominantly black community in Lake Worth. “You look at the past and expect to see greater for your future,” said Cato. He would like to see a marker at Fannie James’ gravesite and he and Brownstein agreed to work on making it happen.
Anderson Kurtz, coordinator of the Black History Month event, said putting on the presentation was very important, “because black history needs to be told, especially in Lake Worth,” he said.