This vacation hotspot might be best known for its sugar-white beaches and turquoise water, but its postcard beauty belies a rich and diverse history. In the last 450 years, Pensacola has come under the sway of five different flags — Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American. Each wave of occupation brought new immigrants to Pensacola’s shores — all of whom contributed to the city’s cultural and ethnic milieu. Among the waves of settlers, soldiers and immigrants were many of African descent, who have helped define modern-day Pensacola.
Dido Elizabeth Belle
The woman known as one of Britain’s earliest biracial aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle, became a household name last year. Her life — and its influence on England’s abolitionist movement —formed the basis for the feature film “Belle.”
Belle had long been a source of interest for scholars — thanks to an 18th-century portrait that depicted her and her white cousin on equal terms, something that was unusual for the time. The painting — and the film — highlight the intersecting narratives of imperialism, slavery and abolition and the politics of race and gender in 18th century America. It’s a story that leads directly to Pensacola.
Belle was the daughter of a British navy captain named John Lindsay, who commanded the British naval forces in Pensacola from 1764 to 1765, and an enslaved African woman named Maria Belle. Upon returning to London in 1765, Lindsay entrusted his daughter’s care to the family. He then freed Maria Belle and eventually bought a home for her in Pensacola, where she lived until the city was overrun by the Spanish in the 1781 Battle of Pensacola.
Morris Slater, better known as "Railroad Bill," was a black turpentine worker in Bluff Springs, Alabama, just north of Pensacola, who achieved infamy during the Reconstruction era for robbing trains and distributing his loot to the poor.
Slater was killed in Atmore, Alabama, in March 1896 — after having shot a sheriff. His body was displayed in “colored” rail stations throughout the region — as an example to others who would seek to overturn the existing power structure.
Despite attempts to suppress it, the legend of Railroad Bill lived on. Slater became a popular character in African American folklore and was immortalized in the popular blues ballad “Railroad Bill,” which has been recorded by countless artists through the years.
Visitors can see Slater’s grave at St. John’s Cemetery, one of Pensacola’s most historic cemeteries still in use today.
Daniel “Chappie” James
Daniel “Chappie” James was born in Pensacola in 1920, during the height of the Jim Crow era. His mother, Lillie James, ran a private school for black children out of her home in Pensacola’s Eastside neighborhood. From an early age, James knew the value of hard work and education — values that would serve him well later in life.
James went on to become one of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen” during World War II, and later, the nation’s first black four-star general. Today, a memorial plaza stands on the site of James’ childhood home — along with the original concrete stoop, emblazoned with the words, “Chappie’s first steps.” The memorial is a palpable reminder of the strength and perseverance of Pensacola’s black community — even in the face of overwhelming odds.
Army Pvt. Rosamond Johnson, Jr.
Army Pvt. Rosamond Johnson Jr. was only 15 years old when he enlisted in the army and only 17 years old when he saved two soldiers in battle during the Korean War on July 26, 1950. While attempting to save a third, Johnson was killed, marking him as the first black soldier and first resident of Escambia County to be killed in the Korean War.
At the time of his death, most Pensacola Bay Area beaches were not open to blacks except for one in Perdido Key. The beach was accordingly renamed in his honor and remains to this day a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The historically black neighborhood came to prominence during the early 20th century, when segregation and mounting racial tension pushed the city’s black residents out of the city center. The neighborhood, clustered around the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets, became a thriving commercial hub. It was also a prominent stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit — a network of mostly black-owned entertainment venues that sprung to life during segregation and nurtured the careers of some of the biggest names in American music.
Today, travelers can take a trip back in time. On February 12, the Historic De’Alemberte House will host a one-day soft opening for its virtual reality exhibit. In June, the restored house-turned-museum built circa 1884, will open to the public showcasing the multi-cultural history in the district. Outside of the museum, visitors can stroll the streets of Belmont and DeVilliers marveling at the past and stopping for a bite to eat at popular African-American owned restaurants such as Blue Dot Barbeque and Five Sisters Blues Café.
Today, as in the past, travelers have the opportunity to learn and participate in black history that has had a profound influence on the Pensacola Bay Area and its culture. To learn more about black history in the Pensacola Bay Area and to start your vacation planning, visit www.visitpensacola.com.