New highway threatens Royal’s historic African-American community again


No matter which proposed route you consider, Florida’s northern extension of the Turnpike could destroy Royal’s African-American community in Sumter County.

And while the Florida Department of Transportation now says it will change routes to minimize the impact, residents are worried.

“A historical place”

Eighty-nine-year-old Maitland Keiler sat at his neighbor’s kitchen table talking about Royal – the community they call home.

“Oh, this place here is a historic place,” he said. “And we don’t think we could ever find another place to replace Royal.”

Keiler fears losing his home. The state is planning a northern extension of the Florida Turnpike. And all the routes on offer have one thing in common: they criss-cross the heart of Royal.

They would remove Keiler’s house, the Baptist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the community center and the park.

A historical marker can be seen in Royal on the site of a former school – only the cafeteria remains, as the historical centre. There is now a community center and park on the site. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Royal is a historically black rural and farming community – with a tradition of land ownership in 40-acre and 80-acre land grants passed down from generation to generation. At Royal, family land ownership is paramount.

“I remember when women had to walk from Royal to Oxford to work for a few dollars a day,” Keiler said. “And they were always talking about ‘I have to pay my taxes.’ And it’s very important that we can keep Royal because these people sweat many days to keep this community.

Keiler’s neighbor is Annie Johnson, 97. She and her late husband were farmers who raised cattle, pigs and chickens.

Johnson says they supplied the city of Oxford. Five generations of his family still live in Royal. His great-great-great-grandson plays in the other room.

“It was magnificent”, said. “We weren’t rich but I wouldn’t have taken anything for that. Nothing in the world. »

The residents of Royal pride themselves on their hospitality, on being a village where people look out for their neighbors and their neighbours’ children.

“Stay out of Royal”

Road builders have hurt Royal in the past. At an intersection in the road, you’ll find a scattered collection of tilted, moss-covered tombstones.

Keiler says Royal’s families used to take bodies by wagon to this ancient cemetery. “It’s a shame,” he said, “how they, you know, made a road through the cemetery and destroyed all the graves.”

Headstones remain at the site of the old cemetery on Monarch Road, at County Road 219 and old Road 44. Locals say a road ran through the cemetery. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

And then there’s Interstate 75, which ran through Royal in the 1960s. A single overpass kept the two halves of the community connected.

In 1998, residents and the County Commission opposed an earlier plan to have the turnpike run through Royal.

Now, once again, residents are rallying against the toll highway – supporting the “No Build” option but really focusing on protecting their community.

“We have to stand firm. Stay out of Royal. Stay out of Royal. We support No Build, but stay out of Royal,” Beverly Steele said at a recent community meeting.

She runs a nonprofit and works in the historic center, where the walls are lined with books, exhibits, maps, framed items, photos and portraits of Dr. King and the Obamas. Many years ago, she returned from the company’s offices in New York to care for her mother, who is now a hundred years old.

“Ownership of the Land”

The connection to elderly family members has sustained Royal, Steele said in an interview at the center. “What they had was ownership of the land. So they wanted to keep it and then pass it on — that’s all they could pass on from generation to generation. So they stayed here. So there was always someone here among all these families who maintained the community and looked after the land.

Shortly after the Civil War, former slaves settled here and it was known as Picketsville.

“The story says our people came from the Old Green Plantation – I love to put it this way, my aunt put it this way – next to the Withlacoochee River,” Steele said.

In 1891, when a post office was established, it was called Royal.

The Bethel Second Baptist Church is one of two long-standing churches that could be destroyed as part of the proposed routes for the northern extension of Florida’s Turnpike. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Steele said an old story passed down from white settlers in the late 1840s tells the story of a community here of liberated Africans.

“And they had already named it Royalsville,” she said, “because they were kings and queens in Africa and they wanted future generations to remember that they came from royalty.”

Steele is leading an effort to add Royal to the National Register of Historic Places as a Rural Historic Landscape.

University of Central Florida anthropologist Edward Gonzalez-Tennant worked on their application with the Florida Department of State.

“In general,” he said, “it was still small-scale family farming, tobacco and other crops, cash crops, of course, which locals grew and processed with their own hands. on their own properties, transported them to neighboring towns, and this is how they earned their living.

Gonzalez-Tennant says many other rural African-American communities in Florida have disappeared amid racial violence and migration to cities. He points to Rosewood, which was destroyed by a racist mob, and Santos, where black owners were bought out for a Canal Cross Florida Barge that never came.

Gonzalez-Tennant says plans for the tollway in Royal reflect a pattern seen across the United States. Many minority communities — like Parramore in downtown Orlando — have been devastated by new freeways.

“Today in the 21st century when we sit here and look at Royal and see that it has survived to this day,” he added, “we have a very unique example of an African-American community in Florida.”

“Refining the Corridors”

Residents discovered the toll highway when they received letters from lawyers specializing in eminent domain cases. This is when the government takes private property for public use.

Since then, community members, the City of Wildwood and Sumter County have brought the impact on Royal to the attention of FDOT planners. The city and county offer a route crossing I-75 south of Royal. This could further eliminate the west side of the community, where a new landowner is pursuing industrial zoning tied to the toll highway.

FDOT says it listens to concerns. A department spokeswoman said the initial maps did not take into account Royal’s historic sites. In an email, she says the department will “refine corridors to minimize impacts” on Royal.

On a wall in the historic center hang sketched portraits of Peggy Davis, Reverend Matthew Beard and Polly Patterson-Wideman, known as “Big Mama”, all Royal residents who lived for over a hundred years.

Steele calls it the wall of honor.

“Every day,” she said, “I walk into this center, they smile at me and say, ‘Carry on the legacy. Continue what we have brought to this country. Continue what we have brought to our families.

Copyright 2022 WMFE. To learn more, visit WMFE.

The Bethel Second Baptist Church is one of two long-standing churches that could be destroyed as part of the proposed routes for the northern extension of Florida's Turnpike.  Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

The Bethel Second Baptist Church is one of two long-standing churches that could be destroyed as part of the proposed routes for the northern extension of Florida’s Turnpike. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Headstones remain at the site of the old cemetery on Monarch Road, at County Road 219 and old Road 44. Locals say a road ran through the cemetery.  Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Headstones remain at the site of the old cemetery on Monarch Road, at County Road 219 and old Road 44. Locals say a road ran through the cemetery. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

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A historical marker can be seen in Royal on the site of a former school - only the cafeteria remains, as the historical centre.  There is now a community center and park on the site.  Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

A historical marker can be seen in Royal on the site of a former school – only the cafeteria remains, as the historical centre. There is now a community center and park on the site. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News
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