Communication Builds Our Community

Polk's History Shaped by the Compassion of a Former Slave

Freedman L.B. Brown Formed Partnership With One-Time Slave Owners, Built Homes for Many

Polk County history is filled with fascinating stories of the people who pioneered the communities we live in today, but few resonate like that of L.B. Brown.

Courtesy Neighborhood Improvement Corporation

L.B. Brown was a respected community leader who changed the perspectives of many former slave owners about the capabilities of the "Freedmen," former slaves who proved that they could make major contributions to society.

Less than two hundred years separate the bustling cities and transportation networks that define Florida from the pristine conditions that existed during the thousands of years when the First Nations people occupied this land. Prior to Emancipation, much of the work of building towns along the Florida frontier was laid at the feet of slaves.

Prior to the Civil War, enslaved persons were considered property, not people. They were often sold and transported miles away on a whim. Children were torn from their families and spouses separated; their relationships destroyed. They were not allowed to learn to read or write. They faced severe penalties if caught trying to do so. Furthermore, they could be brutally punished, even killed, anytime for anything.

How could a man born into these circumstances develop the knowledge and skills to become a land developer and builder? It seems impossible, but one man did that, and more.

Lawrence Bernard Brown was born into slavery in Wacahoota, Florida, several miles from Gainesville, in 1856. He was freed in 1865 at the age of nine when the Civil War ended. His father, Peter Brown, was a plantation preacher admired by his people.

After freedom, Peter continued to assume a leadership position among black citizens. He homesteaded about 40 acres of land in the town of Archer where he built a home for his family. Understandably, Peter Brown was a positive influence on his son, Lawrence. As Lawrence began developing a career and assuming a leadership role in his community, he needed only look to his father for a suitable role model.

Courtesy Neighborhood Improvement Corporation

The well-known L.B. Brown house in Bartow is owned by the Neighborhood Improvement Corporation and serves as a museum and historical center, and hosts annual commemorative events on its grounds.

Brown Learns Land Development

Lawrence lived with his family until the year 1878. That year, he moved to Volusia County, Florida in the Spring Garden area where he met Uriah Bennett, a Primitive Baptist minister and Confederate veteran, who was serving as postmaster of Spring Garden. While it may seem unlikely, the relationship between Bennett, a Confederate veteran, and Brown, a Freedman, evolved into a constructive one. This speaks well of Bennett's outlook as well as Lawrence Brown's personal skills.

Brown's apprenticeship in land development and building began when Bennett introduced him to several land developers known to Bennett. In early 1882, Bennett sold Brown a five-acre tract of land, which further encouraged his business development. Brown divided the land into lots and built homes on the lots-his first subdivision.

In late 1881, we see further evidence of Brown and Bennett's relationship. In September of that year, when Brown and Elizabeth "Bettie" Washington decided to marry, Brown asked Bennett to perform the ceremony. A few years later, when Brown moved to Bartow, FL, Bettie is not mentioned, and she does not show up on census records. It is likely that she died in childbirth.

Brown Moves to Bartow, Florida

When Brown moved to Bartow, it was a booming town, thanks to the discovery of phosphate and the recent arrival of the railroad. He became a community leader and a wealthy entrepreneur, using his knowledge and skills to develop land and build houses. It is estimated that he built fifty to sixty houses. Some he rented, some he sold, and some he sold with a rent-to-own contract.

Charles Warren

Typical of the tidy rental houses constructed by L.B. Brown is this preserved home which has been relocated to the grounds of L.B. Brown's former personal residence. Brown's oldest son, Robert Brown, suggested that this six-room bungalow was constructed around 1912.

Much of what we know about Lawrence Brown is through his journals. He kept meticulous records. Of particular interest is a rent-to-own contract for a man named Ben Knight.

Knight's initial rent was set at $5.00 per month. After he had made payments totaling $45.00, Brown agreed to take $35.00 and apply it as down payment on the house and lot. The total for the house and lot would be $475.00.

If Knight decided to transition from rental status to homeowner, the monthly mortgage payment would be $15.00 with 8 per cent interest. Some months into the purchase, Knight began to experience problems making the $15.00 monthly payments. Brown helped him by reducing his mortgage payment from $15.00 to $8.00 with the stipulation that if he was unable to pay the $8.00 monthly, he would drop the payments to $3.00 and the contract would revert to a rental agreement with no option to buy.

Unfortunately, before Knight could complete the purchase, he disappeared, leaving his wife and children to wonder and worry about him. These were dangerous times. One possibility is that Knight had been killed and his body never discovered. He didn't appear on any census records after his disappearance.

In his journal, Brown describes making financial adjustments to help Knight and his family. The details he provides demonstrates Brown's keen grasp of the capitalist system, his ability to figure complex math, and his benevolence towards his fellow man.

The L. B. Brown House Museum

Brown built a lovely two-story Victorian style house for himself and his family in Bartow. This home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Brown's story, one of the original displays at the Smithsonian's African-American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, DC, is now a permanent display.

Courtesy Neighborhood Improvement Corporation

L.B. Brown's grave can be found in the Evergreen Cemetery in Bartow.

It is a testament to Brown's skills, both personal and professional, that he was able to accomplish so much during one of the most dangerous times for black men, especially successful black men, in our nation's history.

Free, informative tours of the Brown House Museum may be scheduled at www.lbbrown.com.

Why is this history important for us today? In the words of historian and author Dr. Canter Brown, Jr., "Lawrence B. Brown commanded respect. An outstanding black businessman and community leader, he helped to build modern Florida. Sadly, history books have not told Brown's story or those of countless similar African American men and women. For too long, tales of individuals who refused to yield to the injustice of discrimination and oppression were considered too dangerous to society because they might undercut the customs of everyday life in a racially segregated world. Today, Brown's saga must be told. It inspires. It provokes thought and stands as a fitting reminder of fine men and women history has forgotten but who made a difficult world a much better place in which to live." '

Dr. Brown's quote is taken from the book "From Slavery to Community Builder: The Story of Lawrence B. Brown."

"History is not for you to like or not like. It is for you to learn. If it offends you, even better. Perhaps you will be less likely to repeat it. It is not yours to erase. It belongs to us all." -Charles Luster, Jr., African American Museum, Bartow, FL.

About the author: This article was written by Charles Warren, the author of two books: From Slavery to Community Builder: The Story of Lawrence B. Brown and Address Unknown. His latest novel, Unlikely Heroes: Searching for Home in America will be available in mid-summer. For more information visit charleswarrentheauthor.com.

 

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