“He tricked us . . . and burned our homes down”

I sat in on a lecture a couple of years ago and listened as a docent from Whitehall talked about Henry Flagler, the man who forged a path through the wilderness of Florida to do the impossible– build a railroad clear to Key West. I didn’t know much about Flagler at the time, but I knew enough to know that many call him a great man and a visionary. I also knew the legend of the Styx, the community on Palm Beach island where the black workers lived. They worked to build up the area for Flagler, to bring in all the wealthy tourists. They lived in shacks and little homes they’d built.

The Styx

The Styx, from historical archives.

The local legend tells us that Flagler then saw the attractiveness of Palm Beach as a resort getaway, but knew visitors wouldn’t want to see the “squalor” of the Styx when they arrived in pristine Palm Beach. Supposedly, in 1912 Flagler invited all the blacks off Palm Beach for a circus of sorts– some say a cookout –and then set the Styx ablaze while everyone was out.

I raised my hand after the lecture to ask the docent about this, and everyone laughed, waving it off as a silly inquiry. I couldn’t help but notice everyone in the room was white.

The legend is sensationalized in the book Palm Beach Babylon, and many people believe it to be true. While whites saw the Styx as “dirty” and “uninhabitable,” these were homes the blacks lived in, people who built the hotels, the beautiful places whites flocked to for their vacations.

In present-day Florida, I’ve heard racists say horrible things about the blacks “on the other side of the tracks.” Pleasant City, where the blacks settled after they were forced off Palm Beach, is not so pleasant today, and neither is the crime rate in West Palm Beach as a whole. Having driven through Pleasant City, and read about the town, I’m sad to see its decline.

Flagler saw what Palm Beach could be.

Naturally, there was more than one reason to get rid of the Styx. It was a health hazard, they say. But I don’t think anyone can ignore the bottom line. What rich white fellow wants to visit an island that has a bunch of black people living on it, in a time when blacks were considered nothing more than laborers?

The Styx

The Styx, from historical archives.

When the blacks were evicted, Pleasant City was born, and developers gave the streets lovely names such as Merry and Contentment because “the Negroes were naturally happy people” Everee Clark recalls. Many of them were still employed on Palm Beach, but they weren’t allowed there after sunset.

Author Eliot Kleinberg dismisses the tale as false, and Inez Lovett, a little girl at the time, remembers no fire. Kleinberg says the owners of the land had to evict the last of the blacks, and then set fire to what was left of the settlement.

But I met a woman recently who claims otherwise.

She knows an elderly lady who was there when it happened.

“I was there,” the old woman had recalled. “Flagler tricked us. They got us out of there, invited us off the island, then burned our homes down.”

I was there, the old woman said.

What do you think?

This is part of the research for a book I am writing. I’d love to hear your thoughts, readers. Florida might be a beautiful place, and I’m certainly in love with it . . . but I don’t want to wear my rose-colored glasses while I write this book.

Others may laugh at what the legend claims, but I say there’s a bit of truth in every piece of fiction. The only question is, just how much truth are we talking about here?

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82 responses to ““He tricked us . . . and burned our homes down”

  1. This is so interesting. I love how you illustrated the post, too. As a librarian, I know the contradictions and challenges of research. I think you’ve chosen a great topic. Good luck!

  2. I am African American and never knew the details. Today, my oldest brother was talking about it. Therefore, I immediately went to the internet to find your article. Thank you . I am 52 years old and my mother, father, grandmother or aunt never gave us the history. It leaves me shaking my head.

    • Thank you for posting your thoughts, Deborah. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. As you can see, there are mixed opinions on whether or not the Styx were purposefully burned down. The interesting bit is that there’s really no actual evidence to prove it either way. So, who knows… It makes me shake my head in amazement, too.

    • Hello! Thanks for commenting. This post was about a legend that, regardless of whether or not it was true, certainly piqued my creativity as a writer. What do you think is ridiculous? The legend itself, or the post? 🙂 Thanks again for visiting! I hope you have a great day.

  3. Thank you so much for caring enough to write about this controversial topic. As a little girl growing up in the seventies, my grandmother often told stories about the styx. Her version of destruction was that of the tickets to the circus…..then the fire. She worked on the island of Palm Beach until she retired and was quite a bright lady. I love history….good or bad and I feel there is some truth to this story. Regardless…..I love the beautiful island of Palm Beach and relax on our shores frequently.

    • Hi, Kimberly: I’m so glad you found my post and commented. Thanks so much for sharing that story! It’s definitely a controversial topic, and I also believe there’s some truth to it. In the past, when I’ve asked questions about it, people have laughed, thinking it couldn’t possibly be true. But when there’s a lot of money involved… just about anything is possible. I also love the area! 🙂 I hope you have a great day. Thanks again.

    • I wonder if the Breakers burning down was retaliation for what was done in the Styx. People can only take so much and someone may have been pushed too far. I know what was said, but after reading about the Styx, I had a different idea.

  4. This story is true. My grandmother would tell me this stor hundred times over when I was a child. It truly brought back memories. The details in this article are just what she told me. I always thought it would make an interesting film or book. Thank you so much.

    • Marlena: Thank you so much for sharing. I think there are many times in history when stories are forgotten or scoffed at because someone at the top was able to wield enough power to push those stories under the rug. Did your grandmother live or grow up in the West Palm area? Thanks again for commenting.

  5. I attended the Florida Civil Rights program offered by the Florida Humanities Council last summer. If you are able, you should contact them or try to attend next summer. It was very eye opening, as in your story, much of the ugly history has been whitewashed (pun intended) in the name of attracting those tourism dollars. I’m the Humanities Council program would be helpful in your research. As I’m sure you know, St. Augustine history is full of Flagler’s influence as well.

    • Hello, Bonnie: Thanks so much for commenting and sharing that information! I’ve also been to St. Augustine and I’ve seen Flagler’s influence there. I will certainly check out the Florida Civil Rights Program. I appreciate the tip! Thanks again.

  6. This story is FACTUAL! I am a native of West Palm Beach, FL and they have being disclaiming this factual story for a hundred plus years. Many ederly people that still or families still live there will certify your findings.

  7. Thank you for writing such a great piece! I’ve heard this story a few times as a little girl, but since there’s no”evidence”, it’s easy and callus, for people to say it’s an old wives tale. It’s sad and typical for some to regard this as “ridiculous”, b/c surely, a rich white man, of a certain era, would NEVER scheme to take the land of poor blacks for his own gain. 😐
    Similar to this story, I remember old black folks telling me about all the black bodies dumped into a big hole, since the whites didn’t give blacks access to the hurricane shelters or want to bury them properly, after a huge hurricane in the 30s (Zora Neale Hurston’s book: “Their Eyes were watching God”, writes about all the blacks bodies that floated by) when we would drive down Tamirand Blvd… in the 90s the city of West Palm Beach wanted to build on that land and denied the bodies being buried there, until a lady (don’t know her name sadly) fought hard to get that land tested, and behold… SHE WAS RIGHT! They are hundreds of bodies underneath that ground (this mass grave site has been fenced and memorialized now on Tamirand b/c of her).
    Too bad there’s no empirical evidence to”prove” your findings. This is not a new story for blacks in America, there’s similar ones from St. Louis, Malibu, etc where entire towns of blacks were forced out of their communities without warning, so the city could “develop”/steal it.
    Blacks in America, have so much hidden painful history… it’s like salt poured into open wounds, to tell the story again, so most of it dies in the broken hearts of the ancestors. Kudos to you for digging deeper and pushing past the barriers of people’s minds. The romance of Henry Flagler, the great industrialist, is one many want to keep unstained, but if he’s a thief, he’s thief…acknowledge his faults and move on.

    • Hi, Mari: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is one of my favorite books. I have read a lot about what you speak of, and I’ve driven by that spot, as well. I have read biographies on Henry Flagler, and he always seemed like a strange, secretive fellow to me. Thanks so much for posting! I appreciate all your thoughts and comments. Many thanks, Rosa

      • hi im Barbara and I have searched for years and it is sad to say that I found info telling me that henry flagler is my great grand father he married my great grand mother they even talk about her in the Whitehall she was killed for being his black wife. she did his laundry he fell in love and married her in 1933 she was buried on 30th street in Riviera beach cant get more info for years, the people own the grave yard wont talk to me in that time you could go out and just bury your own. im 64 years old

  8. There’s the Hudnell Musuem in the Roosevelt Full Service Center on Tamarind & 15th that can help you. It is a collection of artifacts from people who lived in that area when it was “Merry” & “Cheerful”. You’ll have to call or email to set up a time to visit.

  9. I commend you on your search for and documentation of the Truth. None of us should black and white should passively accept denial any longer. The only way to heal from the past and improve the future is to face our mistakes (as a Nation) and create a new era of honesty, honor and dignity. It’s possible.

  10. I want to add to your story. It’s missing a few names and the time line is off a tad.
    Thumbs up though

    • Hi, Horace: Feel free to let me know what’s incorrect. This post was meant to be a casual blog entry. I never actually expected so much response, though I am delighted that so many have read it. Thanks so much for commenting.

  11. I know everlee jimerson clark, the author that u referred to, she’s an old family friend, grew up with my grandma. I’m born and raised in west Palm beach, by the way.
    The legend is TRUE, and if u ever been to Mrs. Clark’s pleasant city historic museum (sadly, it’s closed now), this woman had SO MANY PICTURES from back then it’s scary. She basically knew everyone from that time as a child and collected literally 1 or maybe 2 thousand pictures from the styx era as well as pleasant city, she even had photos from the founding of magonia park, like the very first jai alai building.
    As a native of this city, I assure you, this is NOT an urban myth, some of the elderly still here refuse to let us forget…
    The ONLY thing I disagree with is you saying “blacks were brought down”. That’s not ENTIRELY true, there are blacks who are native here, a part of my family is on my dad’s side. To say that is saying no one lived here before Flagler, and that would completely cancel out the Bahamians who came over here long before even Columbus (I mean, look how close bimini and Freeport are to Palm Beach).

    I think you’ll right a great book. But first, go on cheerful st., contentment And Isaac st and talk to the elderly still there, they’ll give u the REAL story…

    One more thing, the Tulsa Oklahoma riots happened a lil while later. Remember what they did THERE???

    Peace…

    • Thank you for commenting! By the blacks being brought down, I meant those that had worked on the railroad. I didn’t mean to imply that ALL blacks had been brought here at that time. My apologies for the confusion. I will fix that sentence so it reads better. Thanks so much for sharing this information with me! I am absolutely honored that you’ve commented here. Please feel free to contact me via email, if you wish: rosysophia@gmail.com … And thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  12. It’s true that while they were off the island, their community was destroyed by fire. My grandmother, Frances Brooks just a young child at the time was one of the residents.

  13. I grew up in West Palm Beach, so I’ve heard this story for many years. I believe every word of it. I’ve also spent time on Palm Beach, and sadly the same “better than you” attitude is there. It is also equally as bad to see the decline of Pleasant City. Although, I’ve never lived in “The CIty”, my father was born and raised there. My grandmother was also a housekeeper for a nice family for two decades in the 60’s & 70’s. She always said she had to be off of Palm Beach island before dark. So yes, I believe every word.
    Thank you for your article, now I need to start asking family members more information about Henry Flagler and his bag of tricks.

  14. I believe that this is true, because of the treatment the blacks received during that time. Flagler was no different than Christopher Columbus. Stealing is what they did best. Florida was built by blacks and the whites took it away. Same thing in Miami. The history of Coconut Grove and Overtown…

    • I agree, Doc. I think there’s a lot to the story that shouldn’t be dismissed. You’re absolutely right. Thank you so much for commenting!

  15. This is one of the best articles around true events just like the storm that kilt all the blacks some from the island in the 1900s they piled all the bodies up and dump them in the corner of tamarind ave #importantlandmark

  16. Certainly possible, but history needs proof, more than a woman who knows a woman who says……. Eliot Kleinberg has always been a good source. Good luck on the topic.

    • Thank you for commenting, Andrew! I’m certainly not saying that it definitely happened… just speculating on a fascinating legend. Kleinberg is, indeed, a great source. Thanks again for visiting my blog.

    • The claim “history needs proof” is part of an old battle over the definitions of local, public, and national history. Who gets to tell a story that will be believed? Which author is granted ultimate authority? This is particularly important for the American South where 19th century racial disparities were deliberately crafted and maintained well into the 20th. From the federal decision in Dred Scott (“the black man has no rights to which the white man is bound to respect”), to the inability of blacks to testify against white people, to the Black Codes post-Reconstruction, the notion of black testimony has been rendered illegitimate unless endorsed by a white person. I believe this story because I believe my 102 year old grandmother. And I mistrust the impulse to use official documentation as the ultimate arbiter of truth, particularly when the archives are slanted in favor of the rich, powerful, and/or white.

      • Lisa: Your comments are spot-on. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! History is often recorded by those who have the most money… the most power. So true. Thanks again for visiting.

  17. I read about this in middle school an we even visit his home in palm beach . It’s true what the lady said an it’s sad how they treated an still treating blacks today

    • Hi, Vernetta: I think that would be a wonderful idea indeed. I am not a filmmaker, but I sure hope someone does it! Thanks so much for commenting.

  18. This is true. My grandmother is a native Floridian who moved to West Palm Beach as a small child. She is now 102. She told her children and grandchildren this story. I will be seeing her next week and really should get her to talk about this while I record it for posterity.

    • Hi, Lisa: I recommend you do a recorded interview with her if you can. This is so important. History needs voices like hers! Please feel free to email me any time: author.rosa.sophia@gmail.com … I would love to hear from you. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing lady. Thanks again for commenting.

  19. Hi! I grew up in west palm. Born in 1960,The story I always heard was they were running out of room ,to many people for the island? So they had them move to the mainland. Who knows,I was just a kid. But I can see what you have here to be a possibility also..

    • Hi, Tanya: Thanks for commenting! You’re right, that’s part of another version of the story. There is no actual evidence to support the legend itself, but you can certainly read more about it (as well as the various viewpoints) online and in a few books. I think I mentioned one or two of them in my post. Thanks again for visiting!

  20. Rosa – Thank you for writing about The Styx! It breaks my heart to learn about what happened to these people after they built what is now Palm Beach. I now understand how West Palm Beach was created. I am so glad that all of these injustices are coming to light!!!

  21. Ur awesome for writing this so controversial article! I know a few pioneers of WPB n Pleasant City. I’ve heard about their history here from them n Family members. It is not factional! The details r right on, they were treated to a happy Family day out to the Circus. They saw the fires from this side of the coastal. So inhuman. That Man was ruthless and stepped over anyone to get what He wanted. Thank U to U & all the Folks that shared their History on this post. Facts!

    • Hi, Lissette: Thanks for commenting! It’s true the fires happened, for sure. But the question which spurs the legend is whether or not Flagler actually had anything to do with it. It’s not been proven, but I certainly believe it’s possible. Thanks again for visiting!

      • Next week I will contact you or you contact me . I meant to reach out in regards to the story last week On Jul 22, 2016 10:22 AM, “The Backwords Writer” wrote:

        > rosysophia commented: “Hi, Lissette: Thanks for commenting! It’s true the > fires happened, for sure. But the question which spurs the legend is > whether or not Flagler actually had anything to do with it. It’s not been > proven, but I certainly believe it’s possible. Thanks again f” >

      • I would love to hear from you! Anyone is welcome to email me at: author.rosa.sophia@gmail.com … I’m so happy with the overwhelming response to this post, and I would love to exchange emails about the topic. I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks again for commenting.

  22. I’m certainly for the truth and that goes both ways. Political Correctness and the revision of history to fit an agenda does us no good. But the factual truth should be determined regardless of the uncomfortable nature of the story. Perhaps the truth is a combination of both stories. I’ve heard that the decision had been made. Most had moved, and the final step was to clear the land and burn the debris. That’s how you would do it today. If that’s true, one could easily embellish the story. Palm Beach has many examples of defining who gets to live or even park there. The Clubs have their rules as well. There’s not a lot of poor people living in Palm Beach regardless of color. There’s no access to the south jetty anymore like there was when I was a kid. They are still bulldozing smaller houses to build bigger houses everyday. On the FB WPB site, I tried to figure out how Tamerid Ave was created. When were the old dry rotting houses from the50-60’s built? After the 1928 storm? Google map the area. It looks to me, that anywhere there are railroad tracks, cost of homes is reduced. and that’s where the poor lived.
    I find the truth to be exciting! Facebook has helped by bring thousands from the area together. I’m never going to be calling the inlet…the Lake Worth Inlet, but it might be true…
    Good luck with your research.

    • Thanks for commenting! I wasn’t there so I can’t say what really happened, and I don’t want to assume anything. But I do enjoy reading and writing about it! 🙂

      For a fiction writer, the story could easily go in any direction. You’re absolutely right.

      Thanks again for visiting my site.

  23. I think you’ve made your mind up to beleve the worst. Your bias is clearly evident. Flagler was actually a man that built many churches of several denominations. He had a civic heart. The fire was myth. The homes were shanty and many were built like huts with palm frond roofs. A spark from anything would have easily set the entire enclave on fire with no problem. Flagler helped rebuild their little town in the aftermath. Get your facts together before making racist assumptions.

    • Hi, Annie:

      I’m definitely not assuming anything. I was just writing about a legend. Note the word “legend.” I am not assuming anything was true or false. I’m just a writer who’s speculating, and certainly not dismissing any of the good things Flagler did.

      Thanks so much for your comment, but please don’t make assumptions about me.

      Many thanks,
      Rosa

    • Annie, interesting perspective. I’m curious, how to do you “know” how those “shanty” houses were built? And if they a spark caused all of them to burn down, why weren’t rebuilt?…since you have some insight.

  24. The Palm Beach historical society has a section on the Styx. Another version has ER Bradley burning down the community. Ironically ,a picture of Inez Peppers husband hangs In Bradleys driving a rickshaw bicycle toting old man Bradley .

  25. Err on the side of Mother’s wit….
    flagler, rockenfellder, carnegie, dupont and the rest of their ill spirited ilk (descendants included) are still using deception and trickery to lay claim to and burn “Black” people’s property all over the world for their own per$onal agendas which includes maintaining their dominance over the Earth’s resources so why wouldnt they have done it back then? While they were laying claim to other people’s property (bodies included) here in america, cecil rhodes and other wicked wealthy whites were doing the same thing in Africa… from cape town to cairo!!!

    Railroads, fossil fuels, steel, diamonds, gold, unearned income, leisure and white genetic survival have long been a few of the motivating forces fueling the white acts of terror enacted by wickedly wealthy whites on Black people in their quest to become and remain filthy rich! Marcus Garvey spoke to it in his book philosophy and opinions.

    Flagler was a scumbag just like the crackers (their word not mine) in Belle Glade who allowed all those Black People to perish during the 1928 storm many of which ended up in that mass grave along Tamarind Ave. But don’t take my word for it instead continue your research and most importantly consult your Mother’s wit.

  26. I’ve heard the story of what flaggler did to the early black settlers Who lived on The island of palm beach from black teachers who heard it from their grandparents I think this is a great story to write I would love to hear about it again in detail

  27. Want a little bit of evidence? Google Palm Tran’s Route 41. African-American and Haitian workers link to the island. Notice the time of the last bus off the island? It was stated that their contract with the was to have the last bus off the island so that the residents wouldn’t have to deal with the “traffic” of the commutes.

  28. My mother in law spoke to this in some way happened to her family here in WPB but told a little different. Her family member had a home near Palm beach and the deeds were switched to another address. The law told them they had to leave. They had to dismantle the house and rebuild it where the “real” address was inland. It’s a not so secret family legend.

    • Hello, L Highsmith: Thank you so much for sharing that. That must’ve been very upsetting, to say the least, for your mother-in-law’s family. Who switched the deeds, do you think? I would love to hear more. Please feel free to email me anytime at: author.rosa.sophia@gmail.com … Thanks again for stopping by and commenting. –Rosa Sophia

  29. I remember the Palm Beach Post doing an article or series on the this back in the mid 70’s. You should definitely read the article, if you can find it, if you have not already done so.

  30. Just like everything else,whites have everything they have. America from Indians,palm beach,Forsyth County,Wh Kansas, Ca and on and on . Whats else is new . The truth hurts dosen’t it.

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