Photograph by Maven Photo and Film
On April 20, 1867, a meeting of 1,000 former slaves was held in Ocala. There, Reverend Small appealed to the crowd to educate themselves and use their freedom wisely. As early as 1868, Blacks were serving in public office. In 1868, M.A. Clouts was appointed Sheriff. In 1869, a Republican appointee, Edward Barker, took the office of Judge of Probate and head of the local Freedmen's Bureau. Barker organized a company of Black militia to enforce his rulings, and former slaves were quickly appointed and elected to county offices. By the end of the Reconstruction period in 1879, Marion County had sent seven Black representatives to the Florida House including Reverend Samuel Small, Scipio Jasper, Birch Gibson, J. Simpson, and Singleton Coleman. One distinguished representative, Tom Long, who had helped organize Mt. Zion, introduced a bill establishing free public schools in Florida. In Ocala and throughout Florida, Blacks made significant advances during the Reconstruction period. In 1872, 65% of registered voters in Marion County were Black.
A voter registration of freed men from the Ocala Freedmen’s Bureau around the time of its creation included the surnames Alexander, Hampton, Taylor, Moseley, Gadsden, Gardner, and Owens. In 1888, Gadsden was elected City Treasurer and Tax Collector and served for four years. In 1903, he was elected to City Council. Gadsden made his home in West Ocala in a large home in the 400 block.
However, in 1920, only one Black in the state still held an important office, City Treasurer, in Ocala. From 1921-1928, the political power of Blacks continued to wane in Ocala. Democrats had gradually assumed power from the Republicans. In 1936, only 500 Blacks were registered to vote due in large part to the poll tax and continued Jim Crow laws.
James C. Cunningham, elected to City Council in 1975, was the first Black to win a City Council election in 86 years and the second Black councilman since Harry W. Chandler.
Following Mr. Cunningham have been Reverend Lorenzo Edwards, Mary S. Rich and Ire Bethea.
Strong voices continued to rise in West Ocala, fighting for the importance of place for Blacks in Marion County. Pinkney Woodbury, a local activist and historian, co-authored the book “The Struggle for Survival: A Partial History of the Negroes of Marion County, 1865 to 1976”. Rev. Frank Pinkston, Pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, was also a leading activist voice for civil rights in Marion County. The Marion County branch of the NAACP and the Fishing and Hunting Club of Marion County were voices in the collaboration.