By Yasi Bahmanabadi
History never remains hidden. For better or worse, it shows itself, emerging from a distant memory of a grandmother or a great uncle. These relatives carry their stories—filled with joys and pain, discoveries and dreams, passions and fears—well-kept in black-and-white photos taken by tourists, or in their minds like carved names on old oak trees.
Such is the case for the Black community of Florida’s Gasparilla Island. These people, who were once a very important part of the island (beginning in 1900 in the Boca Grande area), have since moved away. Despite many hardships, such as harsh working conditions and segregation, they were instrumental in building the island’s economy. Until recently, much of their story was left untold.
But New College alumna Kaylie Stokes—who is passionate about oral history—found a way to track down several members of that community’s last generation. Stokes documented parts of their history that had never been documented before.
It was an undertaking that began in Fall 2014 during an oral history tutorial at New College, which laid the foundation for her 2016 thesis entitled Race, Power, and Memory: An Oral History of Gasparilla Island’s Black Community.
“What got me interested in the topic was that I’d done an interview with a white woman who lived in Sarasota who had lived on Boca Grande. Through talking to her, I got really interested in the island (it’s only a seven-mile island),” Stokes said. “When I went there to visit for the project, I saw a panel about the Black community on the island that seemed to only be telling one version of the story, and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to make space for the counter-narrative.”
Stokes recently gave a 45-minute presentation on the topic with the Boca Grande Historical Society. Last year, she spoke at the Manasota Beach Club.
“Boca Grande has long been a seasonal destination for wealthy vacationers but also was home to the Black labor community and a fishing village during the first half of the 20th century,” Stokes said. “Almost all of the families in this community were working-class and were supporting the island economy as railroad workers, fishermen, dock laborers, and domestic and landscape workers for wealthy residents.”
Most of the island’s jobs were in phosphate, and many Black laborers worked on phosphate docks, where ships from all over the world docked to load their goods. These laborers had to work long hours, seven days a week. And, though they had a good income, their working conditions were dangerous.
“Until 1958, there was no bridge between the island and mainland, and this isolation made life on the island look magical. At the same time, this isolation caused massive disruption for the Black community when it came to continuing an education,” Stokes said. “Due to vast segregation, there was just one school, which served the Black community up to eighth grade. To complete high school, students had to leave the island (which had a high school for the white students) and, since there was no bridge between the island and mainland, it was a big task for them.”
These students had to take a ferry, train and bus to school, and then had to stay with extended family members for a week before they repeated the same steps to go back home on the weekends (so their mothers could wash their clothes and they could see their families).
“When I think about it now, I just, I think about all of the white schools that I passed on my way to an education,” one of Stokes’ interviewees, Florence Jelks, said.
Despite facing discrimination and living in substandard housing, the community’s descendants nostalgically remember those days on the island as magical. Jelks told Stokes:
“We ate really well. We ate really rich foods. We ate all kinds of fishes. My mom fixed crabs and stewed them, fried them, barbecued them. Any kind of way you can think of, we had them—shrimp or anything you could have from the water. I think about that when I go to some of these seafood places and we have to pay something like that, I say, ‘Oh I wish, I wish.’ We did not know how rich we were, I tell my sister all the time. We grew up as little rich girls because we had all the swimming to do, and I was born on the same street all the wealthy people live.”
Once the bridge was built on the island and the phosphate dock was shut down, workers could live off the island and commute to the mainland after their workdays. Since the labor community could now live off the island, by 1960, the area where the Black community had lived was seen as an opportunity for expensive project developments. Sunset Realty evicted the residents to a new area called Tarpon Pass (however, these new homes were often subject to flooding). It was during this time that members of the Black community had to move off the island and make their new homes in more affordable parts of cities like Englewood, Sarasota and Tallahassee.
“History is not easy and neat. It’s full of contradictions. These descendants remember their childhood on the island with incredible fondness, nostalgia and pride,” Stokes said in her talk with the Boca Grande Historical Society. “And, they share their experiences of segregation and racism. Continuing their education was incredibly difficult and disruptive, and it was empowering and brought opportunity for them.”
The experience of documenting these stories has been both educational and empowering, and it has profoundly shaped Stokes’ perspective on history. Stokes hopes this research will make an impact and challenge how people view the past.
“I hope you challenge yourself to think about history differently—to ask questions about what gaps exist in the historical narrative that you are presented with, to think about whose experiences and voices are included and those whose aren’t,” Stokes said during her talk. “Real history is not a static, objective, retelling of the inevitable. History is a combination of actions and choices of individuals that move us toward one direction or another.”
Stokes has always been interested in history, and in people. During her college years, Stokes was very active in the campus community—working as a tour guide, a teaching assistant, a resident adviser, and an editor for the student-run newspaper.
“Working as an editor for The Catalyst, and also being a resident adviser, had a great impact on preparing me for life after college, and helped me during all the interviews I did for my thesis,” Stokes said.
Stokes currently works as the assistant director of student success programs at New College and is completing a master’s degree program in higher education at the University of Florida. Upon graduating in 2022, Stokes plans to pursue a career in education. She also has her own oral history company with her wife called Story Roots Productions, for which she interviews members of the local community.
Stokes can be reached at 941-487-4505, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yasi Bahmanabadi is an intern in the Office of Communications & Marketing.