Local Black History
SAWMILLS DRAW BLACK MEN TO THE AREA
The first black migrants arrived in West Pasco County looking for work in the sawmills. The Aripeka Saw Mills began operation in 1904 in the town of Fivay (Hudson). At its peak the mill employed 1500 workers, mostly unskilled black men working for $1.50 a day. The same can be said for the sawmills of Odessa which started by using prisoners for their labor in 1899, then turned to paid labor of $1 per day beginning in 1904. Black men also found work in the turpentine business, tapping the numerous pine trees just prior to them being cut for lumber. The Aripeka Saw Mills stopped production in 1912 and the town of Fivay was abandoned shortly after. The men working the sawmill either found work at the two Odessa mills or left the area to search for employment.
BLACK COMMUNITY ESTABLISHED
Economic prosperity brought tremendous growth to Florida in the 1920s. Wealthy northerners were buying Florida land and setting up their winter retreats. Among the fledgling cities undergoing great growth was New Port Richey. As the city grew so did the need for labor. In 1924, a train full of black families from Georgia arrived in New Port Richey looking for employment opportunities and a better life. They took up residence just to the north of town near the Pine Hill Cemetery.
Black men found work crushing rock, building roads and bridges, cutting railroad ties, picking oranges, and working construction on all the commercial buildings going up along Main street and the Boulevard. Black women found jobs at the local laundry establishments or working as servants and cooks in the homes of wealthy white citizens. Black workers were instrumental in providing the back breaking labor that was necessary for the burgeoning city to reach its potential. Some of the most prominent buildings in town, including the Hacienda and Meighan Theatre, were built with the labor of black men.
While the black population were a welcomed addition to the labor force, they were treated as second rate citizens. The “colored quarters,” as it was called, was located just outside the city border. Large families were crowded into small two room shanties without electricity, bathrooms, or running water. They didn’t have a lot of furniture in the homes where multiple people slept on the wood floors. A small wood burning stove to cook on also kept the home warm during the winter. It was understood that black people were to be segregated away from the white people whenever they were not working. There were reports of signs posted around town telling blacks to be out of town by sundown. More than likely the signs were posted by members of the secret society of the Ku Klux Klan.
Not all white citizens treated the black residents poorly. The black community had its own school and church, made possible through donations by the New Port Richey Women’s Club. Julie Obenreder was a nurse who donated her expertise by serving as a midwife. She estimated that she delivered more than 50 babies in the black community. Since the closest black hospital was in Tampa, Julie Obenreder and others offered informal medical attention, when possible. The most common occurrence was treating the children who were riddled with worms because of the unsanitary conditions that they lived in.
BLACK COMMUNITY EXPANSION
By 1927, the black population north of New Port Richey had grown to several hundred residents. The area became known as the Booker T. Washington community. Since the Pine Hill cemetery was strictly for white people, a cemetery for black people was created and named after Robert Stark, one of their most respected leaders in their community.
New Port Richey was a city trending upward during the late 1920s when the bottom fell out in the stock market crash of 1929, leading into the Great Depression. With new construction coming to a stand-still, black workers soon found themselves unemployed. Boarding the same trains that they rode into town just a few years before, black families abandoned the area and returned to Georgia. Only a couple hundred people remained, fighting to maintain their meager existence. Some were able to keep their jobs in the citrus industry, and some remained in construction.
But times were tough for everyone in the New Port Richey area during the depression. Black families took to growing gardens, raising chickens and fishing the ponds just north of the cemetery. When the United States joined WWII in 1941, many of the black men joined the war effort, and older men that stayed home found work in jobs made available when young white men went to war.
Starting in 1924, black students attended school at the Booker T. Washington School located in the Little Home Baptist Church. Willie Stanton was appointed teacher for the one room school in 1924, M. E. Houston in 1928, and M. Stewart in 1929. That year there were 18 students between the ages of 6 and 14. In 1930 Carrie Roberts was the teacher, and Columbus Fulwood was her supervisor. Grace Bennett took over for Roberts the following year. Ruby Lee Mack and Cecilia Taylor Tyson taught at both the Booker T. Washington School and the Odessa School. Ruby Lee Mack Copeland served as Principal in 1942. The Odessa school for black students closed down in 1948.
CHANGES IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY
In 1945, the Pasco County School Board built a new school, keeping the name of Booker T. Washington School. The school was located off of US 19 and Ridge Road. Ruby Lee Copeland, a talented musician and poet, was the teacher from 1945 until 1962. She was the teacher, principal and counselor for every black child in the area for nearly twenty years. Some students had only Mrs. Copeland as a teacher during their entire time in school. In 1962 a new larger school was opened on Pine Hill Road. The school had a total of fifty students divided into two rooms. Grades 1-4 were taught by Mrs. Lewis and grades 5-8 were taught by Mrs. Copeland. Students who wanted to attend high school were transported by Mrs. Ella May Winthrop and other parents to Tarpon Springs where they took a school bus to a Clearwater high school for black students.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped the government enforce the desegregation of schools brought about by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Booker T. Washington School closed in 1967 when black students were integrated into the white schools of Richey Elementary and Gulf High School. The black community had mixed feelings about integrating their children into the white schools. Many felt that the community would lose some of its cultural identity. The following year, Booker T. Washington became a kindergarten. Ruby Copeland followed her students to Richey Elementary where she worked five more years teaching both white and black students. Many years later, the building that served as Booker T. Washington School, became a meeting space for the local African American Club.