ABOVE: Students of Milner-Rosenwald School in Mount Dora
By Susan Myers Mount Dora Buzz Historical Columnist
Many African-American families arrived with early white pioneer families to the pine forest wilderness surrounding Lake Dora. The area became a safe haven for those escaping slavery from other southern states.
Former slave Nancy Page arrived in Mount Dora around 1880. During that time, Blacks and Whites lived and worked in the downtown area. The men found work in sawmills, dairies, turpentine mills and citrus groves, while the women worked as cooks and housekeepers in private homes or local hotels during the winter months. Page “observed an impressive number of African-Americans walking around in a relaxed manner. They owned land and places to live,.” wrote author Vivian W. Owens in her book “The Mount Dorans” which chronicles the history of Mount Dora’s first African-American residents.
During the 1920s land boom, local business people began a redevelopment project to sell choice real estate in the downtown area to investors and residents from northern states. The Black residents who resided downtown were dislocated from their property and relocated to the east area of town. Page and her husband Moss were among the group, as were the Dunns, Gilberts, Butlers, Codys, Adams, Harts, and others. This group of Black pioneer settlers was determined to rebuild their lives. They purchased land, built homes, and established businesses in the East Town area.
Related: More about the historical redevelopment project Other Black residents moved into East Town from nearby Wolf Branch and Angier Pond areas, and the community began to grow steadily. St. Mary’s Baptist Church organized an arbor church under a large oak tree on Florida Avenue and Clayton Street. A business district began to emerge around Grandview Street, where white and black residents shopped. Shops such as Josh James’ Fish Market, Calbert’s Grocery Store, and Burke’s Restaurant became popular establishments.
Many Mount Dora citizens worked tirelessly to improve the lives of their neighbors. Mamie Lee Gilbert and Tillman Thomas strove to fill children's basic needs, such as education and clothing. They established the Helping Hands Club to help adults who suffered the loss of their homes to fire. Professor Cauley Lott arrived in 1938 to find the school for Black children in deplorable condition. Along with Mamie Gilbert and Lilla Butler, the three achieved their goal of a new school known as Milner-Rosenwald Academy. They organized many fundraisers and received a donation from Reverend Duncan Milner, a civil rights advocate, to meet the matching contributions from the Rosenwald Foundation.
Life was not easy for Mount Dora’s Black residents. Many were poor, and their community lacked essentials such as decent housing, paved streets, sidewalks, and telephone service. They endured the Jim Crow and Sheriff Willis McCall era, which brought fear to their community for many years. Yet, they persevered, and new community leaders emerged to lead the Black community forward. Eventually, Professor Cauley Lott would become the first Black council person of Mount Dora. Other community leaders such as Lavond Clayton and Dr. Eugene Burley would continue the struggle for civil rights. The 2021 Mount Dora municipal elections were the first that included a city council seat for the newly formed District 5, which was created with geographical boundaries that finally provided better representation for the priorities of the city’s Northeast Community and its many African-American residents. Nate Walker, a long-time resident, Mount Dora High School alumnus and respected community advocate, won the seat for District 5 unopposed and received a standing ovation at his swearing-in ceremony.
This article is just a brief history of Mount Dora’s Black residents. More can be found in Owens' book “The Mount Dorans: African American History Notes of a Florida Town.” Owens will be speaking at a Mount Dora Historical Society and Mount Dora Library Association sponsored event on Sunday, February 20th, 2:00 p.m. at W.T. Bland Public Library, 1995 N. Donnelly Street in Mount Dora. Join us to learn more about the history of Black Mount Dorans during the years of segregation. By Susan Myers Mount Dora Buzz Historical Columnist
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