It’s the reason Port Orange is Port Orange.
About 50 people, including city leaders and Volusia County Councilwoman Billie Wheeler, were in attendance as the city conducted its annual Freemanville Day ceremony Feb. 13 at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on Orange Avenue.
The church, a simple white building erected in 1911, which is now surrounded by homes, is the last remaining building from the days of Freemanville and still holds services on Sundays for a small congregation of primarily African-American worshippers.
Joined by some of the youngest members of that congregation, Pastor Trudy Crusco led the ceremony in prayer after Mayor Don Burnette opened with a greeting and the Pledge of Allegiance, saying this event was one of his favorites in the city.
“This is Founder’s Day,” Mayor Burnette added. “This is where it all began.”
City Councilman Drew Bastian, City Manager Jake Johansson and Police Chief Thomas Grimaldi also were at the ceremony, which featured a lecture from Dr. Leonard Lempel, a Daytona State College history professor.
“The story of Freemanville reminds us of the struggles of a newly freed people who, through hard work, skill and perseverance, managed to survive and prosper in the Florida wilderness in the years following the Civil War,” Dr. Lempel noted.
Hundreds of freed slaves, many of them Civil War veterans, came to the area months after the war ended to work for the Florida Land & Lumber Co., establishing the community of Freemanville. Their numbers would soon swell into the thousands as other freed slaves were hired by the company, with many of them settling near the Halifax River.
The owner of Florida Land & Lumber, a New England physician and abolitionist named Dr. John Milton Hawks, also came up with “Port Orange” for the name of the new settlement in 1867, two years before harsh conditions and a lack of supplies forced the company to disband.
The population of Freemanville, a name which came from one of the more prominent families of that black community, has ebbed and flowed as the years went on and other parts of the city developed, but Dr. Lempel said the impact Freemanville had on this community is large.
“The community of Freemanville provided a nurturing environment that enabled new generations of African Americans to thrive,” he added. “This is why the Freemanville celebration needs to continue so that new residents and new generations can understand Freemanville’s important legacy, even as the community itself fades away.”
Two proclamations were read during the ceremony, one by Mayor Burnette from the city and the other by Councilwoman Wheeler on behalf of the county.
DSC students Ashia Barnes and Lorenz Smith also sang “Deep River” and “Everytime I Feel The Spirit” during the hour-long ceremony, a pair of old African American spirituals, followed by an original poem by Mary-Ann Westbrook, president of the Florida State Poets Association.