I live in the small, Central Florida town of Brooksville. It’s a pretty town. Quiet. Antebellum homes still line brick-paved streets that stretch beneath ancient oak canopies. There are even rolling hills in Brooksville, which is surprising considering its Florida locale. Cyclists from all over the state come here to train. There are also blueberry farms, horse farms, wineries and numerous other agribusinesses, as well as an established arts community. One would think that Brooksville is a community on the rise, yet the truth is, little has changed here for more than 150 years and that’s just the way many locals like it.
Part of Brooksville’s charm lies in the generations of families that still reside here. Their ancestors were the land owners and plantation owners that made their wealth in turpentine, citrus, mining and banking. Many of their ancestral homes still stand and remain in the care of the families, while a few of the plantations themselves are on historic registers and managed by local and state interests.
As with many small Southern towns, Brooksville has a rich Civil War history, one in which the town takes particular pride. In addition to the Civil War murals and historical markers, there are Founders’ Week and Heritage Day celebrations, as well as the Brooksville Raid — the state’s largest Civil War reenactment. Walking through Brooksville truly feels like a walk back in time.
I moved here 17 years ago, and although I had lived in large cities previously, my mother was from a small town in South Georgia so I knew what to expect. I knew that living in a small town meant never going to a grocery store or restaurant without seeing someone you knew. It also meant being surrounded by salt-of-the-earth people always willing to help those in need, and who could build, fix or cook anything. My expectations of Brooksville have largely held true, as this community has been very good to and for my family. However, there is one thing with which I have always struggled.
Before moving to Brooksville, I had previously lived in a city south of Atlanta that had more than a 50 percent African-American population. Seeing black people and black-owned businesses was second nature, so moving to an area where the only African-Americans I saw were the housekeepers and caretakers of my well-to-do friends was striking. I went from living among a 52 percent black population to an 80 percent white.
In the 17 years I’ve lived here, I can honestly say that not much has changed in Brooksville with the exception that a new fence has been erected around the Confederate statue that has guarded downtown for 102 years to protect it from outsiders threatening to remove it by force.
See, in addition to Brooksville’s popular version of history, there’s another rich history that isn’t being told. Just as the great, great grandchildren of Brooksville’s early founders and plantation owners still reside in Brooksville, so too, do the great, great grandchildren of their slaves, and they, too, have stories to tell, but theirs are different.
Several months ago, I set out in search of some of these untold stories and found someone who agreed to speak with me. I arrived at their home and was greeted by a kindly face who graciously invited me in. Before we began, I asked if I could record our conversation. They declined, as they also did for being photographed or quoted for a story. Apparently, they feared retaliation.
We spoke for about two hours and I listened as they told stories about what it was like growing up in Brooksville, and I watched as tears streamed down their face as they described in detail the atrocities they and their ancestors faced. The emotions were still so raw. I was astonished and deeply impacted by the stories they told. I encouraged this person to publicly tell their story, but they refused, not just out of fear for themself, but they feared for my safety as well.
I left that day with my mouth agape and a heaviness in my soul. It’s 2018 and this person is in fear of their safety and mine? How could this be? It was as if I had been transported back into the 1950’s. To be clear, in no way would I fear for my safety for merely writing a story. That’s not the Brooksville I know. But therein lies the point. The Brooksville I know and the one this person knows, are different.
Their Brooksville is the one living in the legacy of a town that was once ruled by the KKK where fear and intimidation meant folks were afraid to even leave their homes, and it’s easy to understand why. According to a 2015 Equal Justice Initiative report, Hernando County held the second highest per-capita rate of lynchings in the country. The community was violent, lawless and corrupt and there was no justice for black victims of crime.
Although life for present-day African-American Brooksvillians is much different than those early days, the effects of that time can be seen in today’s largely insular African-American community — one that has been carved from protectionism. Both sides (so to speak) live peaceably, but there is a distinct economic and geographic divide within the city that strikes me as unusual and wrong.
Over the years, I have toiled with the idea of digging deeper into Brooksville’s racial history. There is so much to be told. Yet, I have been advised against doing so time and again from those concerned; the rationale being that it’s a Pandora’s box that is better left closed, lest we disturb the relative peace. Yet, the inequality and injustice bother me, but is it really my place to lift the lid?