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Some History of Santos, Marion County, Florida

African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter Volume 14 Issue 2

June 2011 Article 4 6-1-2011

Structural Racism and the Destruction of Santos, Florida

Blue Nelson


About six miles south of Ocala, on highway U.S. 441 in Marion County, there is a brown sign that reads Santos, Florida. To the casual observer, this densely vegetated area may appear to be an unmolested patch of virgin forest. However, to a steadily decreasing number of local residents, this was the center of an agrarian and predominately African-American, community. By all standards, Santos was a common town, not unlike many other small towns that seemed to develop along rail lines and dot Florida’s landscape around the turn of the 20th century. However, in the early 1930s, Santos was razed and its residents scattered when the proposed Cross Florida Ship Canal was designated to run right through the center of town. Residents were given little or no money for their homes and property and even less time to get out of the way of the waiting bulldozers.


In evaluating the events and circumstances surrounding the destruction of Santos, it is highly likely that structural racism played a key role in the displacement of this community (see, e.g., Gaertner and Dovidio 1986). Such aversive forms of racism often have the effect of choking off economic opportunities for communities. In the extreme form suffered by Santos, large-scale development projects in transportation infrastructure lead to the displacement of communities that could otherwise have been ongoing, economic participants in the region. The impacts of distortive ideologies lead instead to the value of those communities being disregarded and to their destruction and displacement (Dovidio and Gaertner 1998; Kleinpenning and Hagendoorn 1993).


Today, a small number of former residents and descendants of Santos have organized to ensure the memory of this nearly forgotten community is kept alive for future generations. Very few former residents are alive to tell their story, and published treatments on the community Omer Cooper J (1971) 1 Nelson: Structural Racism and the Destruction of Santos, Florida Published by ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst, 2011 2 amount to a paragraph at best. For this reason, it was essential to obtain informant interviews which could be combined with primary and secondary sources to produce a study of its history of Santos. The existence of Santos occurs during a period historians have referred to as the nadir, or low point, of race relations; and, is contemporaneous with the violent displacement of Rosewood and Ocoee, both only about sixty miles northwest and southeast respectively. Santos has the potential to provide valuable insights into the development of an African-American collective identity for such a community. This account can in turn be compared and contrasted with the histories of the more violent displacement of other Florida African-American communities during the same period. Fundamentally, this is an opportunity to document the history of a town whose memory fades with the passing of each former resident.

                                        Map of the location of Santos, Florida, and the Cross Florida Ship Canal.

Community Histories
The story of Santos begins just outside Memphis, Tennessee following the Civil War. Following a decade of struggles in the battle-scarred region, a band of European-American farmers led by John Cole sought to make their fortunes with a new start and a new home. With the potential of riches in their eyes, the group set off for Brazil to establish coffee plantations. Once in Brazil the co-operative purchased enslaved laborers and hired an overseer. However, after a short time, the women in these farming families became disenchanted with their new home and successfully urged the men to move back to the United States. According to Payton Liddell, a grandson of John Cole, the family had grown fond of two enslaved workers, Benedict and Eria, and decided to take them back home for fear that the two would not fare well without the farmers
(Pottorff nd).

Upon arriving in New York, Eria and Benedict were given their freedom and accompanied the farmers south to establish new homes. Once back home in Tennessee, the farmers found that not much had changed and decided to try their luck on the Florida frontier. It is possible the band of farmers heard rumors of an alleged cross-state canal and preemptively settled in the assumed path. According to Liddell, the settlers were hoping to cash in once the canal was constructed. In any case, Cole and his associates decided to settle on a few hundred acres just south of Ocala. They called their new home Santos after the previous home of the formerly enslaved companions.

The center of the town formed around the Florida Central and Peninsular Rail Road (called the Seaboard Air Line Railway sometime after 1900). Here J.M. Liddell and his wife, the daughter of John Cole, started their family and established the town’s first general store and train depot. On the 17th of October 1883, Santos received a post office with J.M. Liddell serving as Postmaster. By this act, the little community officially became a town (Bradbury and Hallock 1962).  


Within a year, a Marion county newspaper, The Daily Item, recognized the farming community of Santos in its “Spring Trade” edition as an ample contributor to Marion county agricultural production (Harris 1885). By 1886, the town of Santos boasted a population of forty-seven. The town contained several businesses, including three general stores and the S. R. Pyles & Company’s steam saw and planing mill (Polk 1912). In addition, the town had a public school and African-American Methodist and Baptist churches (Polk 1912).


The main industry of the town, however, remained agriculture with the primary commodities being cotton, lumber, citrus, and vegetables (Polk 1912). In the early years of the town the former Tennessee farmers, including John Cole, tried to cultivate coffee on their land but were unsuccessful (Pottorff nd). In turn, they decided to develop orange groves. However, during the devastating series of freezes from late 1894 to early 1895 this staple crop of the community was decimated. The town was discouraged but not devastated and continued its agrarian ways until its demise.


African Americans’ Experiences in Santos

It is necessary to point out that little is known about Benedict and Eria, presumably Santos’ first black residents. However, it is certain they continued to work for the Cole family and helped raise the grandchildren of John Cole. In fact, a provision in the last will and testament of John Cole stated that the couple, who at this point had adopted the last name Cole, be provided with ten acres of land, eight acres of orange groves, and $250 to build a house (Schneider 2000). Payton Liddell recalled in an interview during the 1960s that Eria and Benedict spoke mostly in Portuguese and used hand gestures much of the time to indicate what they were trying to say (Pottorff nd). It is unknown whether they ever had children of their own.


Despite the widespread racism and violence against African Americans prevalent throughout the United States, and particularly in Florida, at the time (the massacres at Ocoee and Rosewood are contemporaneous to Santos), race relations within Santos appear to have been “pretty good” between the residents of the community (Olinger 1996). One common denominator among whites and blacks was baseball. To this day those old enough to remember to recall the baseball games that took place in the rural community with a smile. Situated near the railroad tracks and a rock crusher facility was the Santos baseball diamond. During the early 20th century this baseball field played host to the Southeastern Circuit of the Negro League. In between scheduled games, Negro League teams would often stop at towns along the railways and play exhibition games for people who would otherwise never have the opportunity to go to a regular-season game. Baseball games were huge events that drew citizens from the surrounding areas, including whites. Many people, both white and black, recall the games with fondness, and in a time when integration was unthought-of in the South, people were able to find “fellowship in baseball” (personal communication, Wayne Little, March 9, 2009).


Route 13-B and the Demise of Santos

January 21, 1927, was the beginning of the end for this little farming community. On this date, President Calvin Coolidge signed the River and Harbor Act which permitted preliminary surveys to be conducted to find a route for a cross Florida ship canal (Stockbridge and Perry 1938). Twenty-eight possible canal routes would be explored. Among these, an option labeled Route 13-B was selected. By November of that year, for unknown reasons, the Post Office in Santos was moved or closed (Bradbury and Hallock 1962). By January 1931, the Belleview School District received a bond to purchase land to build a consolidated “Negro” school, which merged the schools of Santos, Mt. Royal, Belleview, and Ocklawaha (Lovell 1975; Ivey 1977). The school would relocate to nearby Belleview and be known as Belleview-Santos High School.


In the throes of the Great Depression, residents in the path of the canal were instructed to move. According to Wayne Little some residents received money for their land, and others did not. In an interview with The Floridian, Santos resident Leroy Jack Damon recalled, “My dad had ten acres, and there were three homes on the place. They gave him five hundred dollars” (Olinger 1996). It is uncertain what, or who, determined the fair market value of the land or if different values were paid to African Americans than to white landowners. Further, Mr. Little declares that the people of Santos were led to believe the canal was necessary in order to ensure national security. Additionally, he maintains that the people of Santos offered no resistance because they felt it was their patriotic duty to aid their country. Mickey Thomason, Central Region Manager with the Office of Greenways and Trails, concurs with Little, and has spoken with other African-American land owners along portions of the canal right-of-way that have indicated that they, in fact, donated several acres of their land in the name of national security (personal communication, March 9, 2009). The idea to construct a cross-state canal for military purposes went back as far as Andrew Jackson who, as Florida’s military governor “urged upon the government at Washington the construction of a canal across Florida for military purposes” (Stockbridge and Perry 1938: 192). It is uncertain what sales pitch, if any, was provided to landowners in order to purchase their land and remove the occupants with as little resistance as possible.


On September 3, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt allocated $5 million from the Emergency Relief Fund in order to begin work on the canal. Seventeen days later initial excavations began when the President “pressed a gold nugget covered” telegraph key from the comfort of his home study in Hyde Park (Ott and Chazal 1966). Work began nine miles south of Ocala. In Santos, on U.S. 441, four bridge stanchions were built to support a bridge that would route traffic high over the ship canal. By the summer of 1936, financial support for the canal project was exhausted and work came to a stop. Over the next three and a half decades, interest in the canal project would renew. However, the project was always contentious and met heavy resistance on several fronts, most notably the threat of saltwater intrusion into Florida’s drinking water supply. In January 1971, President Nixon halted construction on the canal, and in 1990 the “Water Resources Act de-authorized the canal” (Davis and Arsenault 2005).


After the official demise of the canal project, the question arose of what to do with the land in the right-of-way. The descendant community feared that developers would buy up the land and their history would be lost forever. Some residents tried to buy back their old parcels of land but at the fair market value of that time, they simply could not afford to do so. In order to avert controversy, the state designated the right-of-way for the canal as a recreational area, rather than sell the land to private entities. Then in 1996, the Santos descendant community formed a committee known as the Santos Historical Recreational Committee and asked the state to allocate them a few acres of Santos to convert into parks and recreational areas. The government finally capitulated and allowed the community, in conjunction with the Office of Greenways and Trails, to develop five acres for recreational use with the stipulation that no permanent structures could be constructed on the property. The historical committee, supported by the Office of Greenways and Trails, continued to push for a more permanent recreational area with facilities and structures. Eventually, the state capitulated and granted $300,000 to build permanent facilities, a park, and a baseball field.


Why Route 13-B? Possible Impacts of Structural Racism

Of the twenty-eight proposed canal routes, 13-B was designated above the rest. This route began at Port Inglis and rambled towards the east directly through the middle of Santos.  Many canal advocates opposed this route as they thought it was not the most practical of the twenty-eight alternative routes. One article indicated that if a canal route were necessary “the present practical cross-State waterway now successfully operating between St. Lucie Inlet at Stuart and the Gulf at Punta Rasa, be considered” (Coe 1941). Instead, one year later, route 13-B was re-approved. Of all the acreage necessary to construct the canal only one town would be destroyed.


Despite the fact that an extant cross-peninsular canal was operational to the south, advocates pushed for a new project. No doubt the canal project and route were dictated by Florida politicians and towns that lobbied to bring the project to their community in hopes of prospering from the commerce a major transportation artery would bring. Unfortunately for the community of Santos, policymakers chose to direct the canal right-of-way through their town rather than to the south and through what was, at the time, land utilized by the turpentine industry. In fact, in evaluating Army Corps of Engineer maps of the proposed route a concerted effort had to be made to direct the canal right-of-way through Santos  Taking logistical and topographic concerns into consideration, it made more sense to continue the route south of the town and connecting with the Oklawaha River just south of Sharpes Ferry (USACOE, 1933). This adjustment would have spared the town and at supposedly little to no extra cost.


In the decades that preceded the destruction of Santos, African Americans in Florida experienced a mass exodus northward in the wake of agricultural hardships due to boll weevil infestations, and most notably unbridled violence leveled against black communities. The judicial intervention was almost non-existent in Florida and African Americans could not expect protection from anyone outside their own communities. The decision to route the canal through Santos was a direct result of contemporary racist views and the destruction of the town was as absolute as that of Rosewood.

By the mid-1930s the entire town of Santos had been razed and much of its population displaced. With the economic base of the community shut down and land parcels splintered many people decided to move. Although work was set to begin near their community, few African Americans, if any, were offered work on the canal project. Discouraged, and in the middle of the Great Depression, community members diffused across Florida and the United States in search of new opportunities.


Santos Today

Today, near the old center of town sits a basketball court, bathroom facilities, a playground, several pavilions, and, of course, a baseball field. The committee was also instrumental in having a sign placed on U.S. 441, memorializing the spot of the once agrarian community. In addition, nineteen small brown signs were placed throughout Santos indicating where various known establishments once stood. The town itself has been overrun with forest.


Other than the small brown signs there is no indication that a town once stood near the railroad tracks. In the median of U.S. 441, behind the Marion County Sheriff sub-station, looms the four bridge stanchions. Almost entirely obscured from view, the largest stanchion stands imposing like a grand tombstone that indicates the great loss. The only structure left standing in all of Santos is the Little Chapel United Methodist Church on Southeast 80th Street.


Today, the community of Santos celebrates the memory of the town annually by holding a barbeque and softball tournament. Former residents and families, as well as anyone else who would like to attend, are treated to good food and Santos hospitality. A symbolic softball game is played in the afternoon and, keeping with tradition, the game is integrated. The Santos Historical Recreational Committee invites the Marion County Sheriff’s deputies to participate in the game to ensure that the spirit of Santos baseball is honored.


Concluding Observations Santos was not unlike many small towns of its era -- a simple agrarian community established on a dream of prosperity and hard work. Santos did not stand out in any way and no significant events occurred there. Race relations among the town’s residents appear to have been affable and there was no violent riot that killed masses of innocent people. However, the destruction of Santos is no less racially motivated and its residents no doubt found little solace in a “peaceful” displacement. The passive-aggressive destruction of Santos cannot be compared to the violent devastation of communities such as Ocoee and Rosewood; however, the narrative of Santos seamlessly weaves itself among these horrors to create a tapestry of African-American life in the Jim Crow south. Although the structures have long since been demolished the spirit of Santos remains today through the descendants that keep its memory alive.

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Ocala – Mrs. Jessie Ruth (Jim) Liddell, 93, passed away on Friday, Oct. 14, 2011. She was a native and lifetime resident of Ocala. She was a member of First Baptist Church of Ocala, was Past President of Pioneer Garden Club and was an Auxiliary Volunteer at Marion Community Hospital, now Ocala Regional, for over 25 years. She is survived by her loving daughter, Janice L. Fischer of Ocala, her sister, Ruby (Bobbie) Martin of Ocala, her granddaughter, Dana Fischer of Ocala, her nieces, Ann Moore of Ocala and Kaye Cole of Dillard, GA and her nephew, Robert Martin of CA. She was preceded in death by her husband, Peyton Liddell in 1978. Graveside services will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 at 4:00 PM at Highland Memorial Park with Rev. Gregg Fischer officiating. Visitation will be on Monday from 5-7 PM at Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services, 910 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala.



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The Gainesville Sun -April 10, 1983

  The following article was copied from the Gainesville Sun Newspaper, Sunday, April 10, 1983, found at  

Pyles: A Marion County Name 

If you have ever taken it into your head to wander around some of the old cemeteries, you may have visited the Newnansville Cemetery on the edge of Alachua.  In it is a marker bearing the name “Pyles.”  Samuel Pyles fought in the Revolutionary War and a later Samuel fought in the War Between the States.


The Samuel Robert Pyles who is the subject of this week’s column was related to both these men.  He was born about 8 miles south of Ocala on March 26, 1852, one of seven children.  Only he and his sister, Mrs. M. H. Pooser, were living when “Makers of America: Florida Edition” was published in 1911.  His parents were James W. Pyles and Frances Hannah Barnes Pyles.  They had moved to Marion County early in the 1830s from Georgia.


Sam’s uncles who were prominent in the War Between the States were Gen. Sam R. Pyles and Lt. Col. Louis G. Pyles.  The former died of wounds during the war; the latter of wounds after the war.  Both had also fought in the Seminole Wars in the earlier days of Florida.  Their mother had been killed and scalped by the Indians near Brooksville in 1840.


Sam attended the Marion County schools, including East Florida Seminary (before it moved to Gainesville).  The old EFS building later became Ocala High School where his children attended school.


Sam went to work as a clerk for Mrs. F. A. House in her mercantile store in 1868, entering into a partnership with her in 1872.  They expanded the business and added a shipping and receiving company at the headwaters of Silver Springs.  With the advent of the railroad, F.R.&N. Railway which reached Ocala in 1874, Sam disposed of the business. 


He bought a large farm.  He added orange trees in 1876 and purchased a large wild sour orange grove on the Withlacoochee River, converting it into a sweet orange grove.  He needed transportation for his oranges- so, he built and put a line of steamboats on the river.  The business was great until 1894 when the freeze killed his grove.


Luckily Sam had invested in phosphate lands in 1891-92.  In addition to his lands and steamboats, he had a mercantile business and a sawmill.


He was once Marion County Treasurer and also served as a county commissioner.  He figured in the construction of the courthouse and landscaping of its grounds, worked to get steel bridges over navigable streams, and advocated the improvement of the roads.

 Sam was married twice.  His first wife was Mary Davis Barnes of Marion County.  They had five children.  Three living in 1911, Jessie, Mary, and Maggie.  His second wife was Mrs. Annie V. Hursh Sawtell of Corydon, Indiana.  They had three children, Clifford, Catherine, and Mildred.  There are Pyles still living in Alachua and Marion Counties.  Their ancestors were fighting survivors.

The Florida Agriculturist-Jan. 24, 1906-image 5


A Marion County Farmer

A party of hunters left Ocala early New Years' morning and when in the neighborhood of Mr. Samuel Pyle’s plantation, the dogs got on to the trail of a fox, and Mr. Pyles, hearing the melody of their voices, joined in the chase and remained with the party until two of the beautiful fleet-footed animals had been captured.  It was now the hour of breakfast and Mr. Pyles invited all of the gentlemen to break bread with him and one of the party in relating the incident to us said that it had been many a day since he had sat down to so bountiful and excellent a bill of fare.  Fried chicken eggs, home-cured ham, splendid coffee, hot biscuit and waffles, new-made syrup, fresh butter, sweet milk and buttermilk, and other things too numerous to mention.

After breakfast, the gentlemen were invited to stroll to the stables and barns and inspect Mr. Pyle’s stock.  They saw line horses,  mules and colts, fine Jersey cows and calves, hogs and pigs wattling in their fat, turkeys, ducks, geese, peafowls and chickens,
twenty-five gobblers yet unsold and which will probably be used at the home.  The farm itself was in keeping with the home surroundings.  This gentleman said that it looked more like farming to him than anything he had seen since he had been in Florida.

If you want to see how a man can farm in Florida, what luxuries he can surround himself with and how independent he can be of all the world go out and visit Capt. Pyles.  Ocala Banner ¬


Article found at Library of Congress, National Endowment for the Humanities, Chronicling America, The Florida Agriculturist, January 24, 1906, image 5.



Title: BLAND COMMUNITY Location: County: Alachua City: GAINESVILLE Description: Settled in the 1840s by cotton planters from Georgia and South Carolina, Bland became a diverse agrarian area where farmers and sharecroppers raised cattle and grew cotton and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Joseph Fate Lafayette Matthews (1868-1934) was the towns most prominent citizen who moved to the area from Bradford County in 1899. He and Thomas A. Doke initially purchased 720 acres of land which was once part of the Samuel R. Pyles plantation. Matthews built a large home and general merchandise store just under a mile south of here. With cotton gins and a grist mill, the store served as the center of commerce for the area. In May 1903 Matthews opened a post office which was named for his son, Blan C. Matthews (1902-1927). Fate Matthews served as the only postmaster until the closing of the post office in July 1906.


By the late 1920s he was one of the countys largest land owners. On December 1, 1934, Matthews, then president of the Bank of Alachua, was murdered in his home by a man upon whose house he had foreclosed. William and Elsie Washington successfully homesteaded 104 acres in this area in 1879. Among their many descendants is actress, comedienne, and humanitarian Whoopi Goldberg.


Sponsors: ALACHUA COUNTY HISTORICAL COMMISSION AND THE FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF STATE Bland Community paragraph courtesy Florida Historical Markers Program. Picture courtesy Florida Memory, Florida Photographic Collection, search under Pyles.

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