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 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?
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?