“Where do the people of color live, in your hometown?” This seemed like a simple question, but it rattled me. I couldn’t think of an answer to this question from one of my professors at Davidson. I imagined driving across the southern bridge onto Amelia Island – a barrier island on the Northeast coast of Florida – visualizing the roads that split off from A1A and the friends that lived down them. Two things stood out to me: first, bewilderment at not realizing sooner how white my hometown is, and second, that black Americans in Amelia Island live almost exclusively in American Beach or Southside. After this initial period of shock, I first came to think this was a more recent development – the result of Jim Crow segregation. I was very wrong.
White Americans crafted economic systems to preserve and increase their assets, primarily land and homes, and the wealth that can be derived from these. Even before Amelia Island became part of the United States in 1821, white people blocked their black counterparts from land ownership; dating back to 1776, we know that British Lord Egmont had 100 slaves on the island.  And, once the island became part of the United States decades later, David Yulee relied on 300 to 400 slaves to develop a railroad that helped increase the island’s tourist industry. Slavery was a fundamental part of the island’s economy since European colonialism. This system benefited white Americans because it allowed them to exploit black Americans, and it meant that the entire black American population couldn’t possess property. This concentrated property in the hands of white Americans.
Once slavery was abolished, sharecropping essentially replaced slavery in everything but name. Many black Americans in Amelia Island worked on the land of their former masters under predatory conditions: they took out credit from their former owners to rent tools and land, and they paid it off with their crops.   They often had little left after paying their debt. Again, white Americans retained control of the asset of property and kept most black Americans in poverty.
How do the seemingly distant economic systems of slavery and sharecropping have anything to do with housing segregation in contemporary Amelia Island? Well, these systems consolidated property in the hands of white Americans, who were able to pass these wealth accumulating assets down to their children. In comparison, slavery and sharecropping almost ensured that land ownership by black Americans was impossible. This meant that black Americans were unable to pass down wealth accumulating assets to their children.
During the New Deal, the government supported racially discriminatory lending practices that made home ownership for black Americans extremely difficult. A prime example of this was redlining: the practice of banks granting loans to individuals based on the racial makeup of their neighborhood. Explicit evidence of redlining can be found in Jacksonville – a city an hour south of Amelia Island. In Jacksonville, a neighborhood deemed “Best” to receive a mortgage was one made up of “100% whites, which includes the best class residents,” while a neighborhood deemed “Hazardous” was “occupied 100% by negroes.” Explicit evidence of redlining in Amelia Island is difficult to find, but the practice was standardized across the country. Mehrsa Baradaran wrote in The Color of Money that the Federal Housing Administration had adopted redlining: the “bureaucracy was now actually enforcing segregation.” The guiding principle of slavery and sharecropping – that economic systems should consolidate assets in the hands of white Americans – undergirded the economic principles of the New Deal. This principle spawned practices like redlining in Jacksonville – and likely Amelia Island – that made residential mobility difficult for black Americans, creating the segregation that exists today.
But, if discriminatory lending was ended by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, why is housing in Amelia Island still segregated? The answer lies with the wealth that can be derived from assets. Since the economic systems of slavery, sharecropping, and the New Deal consolidated assets amongst white Americans, this group was able to draw from property and “Housing wealth” which “by far accounts for the largest wealth reservoir for middle- and lower middle class families.” Black Americans, however, were blocked from accessing these “wealth reservoirs.” This made wealth accumulation and mobility difficult for many black Americans on the island. Thus, the systems that created this disparity in assets – and consequently the disparity in wealth – created the foundation for this gulf to compound, propagating housing segregation.
I didn’t realize it until now, but it seems like I had tricked myself into thinking that the Amelia River insulated the island from the systemic racism that goes far beyond our country’s white centered economic systems. The island’s picturesque marsh front downtown – where my childhood self spent the annual Shrimp Festival bedecked in cheap plastic necklaces, high on sugar – was likely central to the illegal enslavement of 60,000 humans that took place on the island, once the international slave trade was banned. The neighborhood gas station where I first learned to pump gas sits at the entrance to American Beach: one of the only beaches in Northeast Florida open to black Americans during Jim Crow. Sadly, what has been more shocking than learning about the island’s racist past has been witnessing how some members of the community have blatantly ignored this history. A clear example of this can be found in recent conversations about the name of my childhood neighborhood. Members of the homeowners association met to discuss changing the neighborhood’s name. No change was made; it is still the Amelia Island Plantation.
 “Fernandina Beach Historic Resources Survey Update,” Brockington: Cultural Resources Consulting, Jun. 2018, pg.15, https://fbfl.us/DocumentCenter/View/18267/Fernandina-Beach-Historic-Resources-Survey-2018
 Peg Davis, “Fernandina’s Place in the History of Slavery,” News-Leader, Feb. 11, 2020, https://www.fbnewsleader.com/local-news/fernandinas-place-history-slavery.
 “Fernandina Beach Historic Resources Survey Update,” pg. 9.
 Peg Davis, “Fernandina’s Place in the History of Slavery – Part 2,” News-Leader, Feb. 18, 2020, https://www.fbnewsleader.com/local-news/fernandinas-place-history-slavery-part-2.
 “Fernandina Beach Historic Resources Survey Update,” pg. 11.
 “Fernandina Beach Historic Resources Survey Update,” pg. 21.
 Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2017, 33.
 Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money, 33.
 Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money, 105.
 “Jacksonville, FL,” Mapping Inequality, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=12/30.325/-81.767&mapview=graded&city=jacksonville-fl&area=D1.
 Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money, 107.
 Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money, 136, 243.
 Thomas M. Shapiro, Toxic inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, & Threatens Our Future, New York: Basic Books, 2017, 45.
 James C. Clark, “Once Known for Slave Trade, Amelia Island Became a Black Resort,” The Orlando Sentinel, Apr. 21, 1996 https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1996-04-21-9604181064-story.html.
 David Jones, “Report: Historic American Beach Home Demolished in Fernandina Beach,” First Coast News, Feb. 13, 2020, https://www.firstcoastnews.com/article/news/history/report-historic-american-beach-home-demolished-in-fernandina-beach/77-c405df66-0937-4a95-b718-819bb5f635a6.
Gerardo Martí says
Powerful story — and what an amazing last line…!