John Donaldson

Lower Pinellas Peninsula’ First Black Settler

The Pinellas Frontier Years 1848-1885

Of course, very few Floridians actually experienced the Black Reconstruction that later dominated the mythology of the New South. To the dismay of the state's seventy thousand freedmen, Radical Reconstruction in Florida was never very radical. Although Florida's Reconstruction lasted for twelve years, far longer than in most areas of the South, the state's ruling coalition of white Republicans presided over a conservative program of limited social change and racial adjustment. When the era was finally brought to a close by the infamous Compromise of 1877—the backroom deal that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in exchange for a formal end to the Reconstruction experiment— the freedmen of Florida were left with little but unfulfilled dreams and broken promises. While they generally retained the right to vote, Florida blacks were seldom able to acquire their own land, or to sidestep the social and educational restrictions of a white supremacist society.

 

One of the rare exceptions to this bleak reality was John Donaldson, the first black man to settle on the lower Pinellas Peninsula after the war. An ex-slave who had lived in Alabama, Donaldson migrated to the area in 1868 as an employee of Louis Bell, Jr., a white homesteader originally from the Florida panhandle. The Bell household also included Anna Germain, a mulatto housekeeper who later became John Donaldson's wife and the mother of his eleven children. The Donaldson’s lived and worked with the Bells for several years, but they eventually struck out on their own, purchasing a forty-acre farm located one-mile northwest of Lake Maggiore (then known as Salt Lake). Although illiterate, John Donaldson was a man of many talents and won the grudging admiration of almost everyone who knew him. Working as a truck farmer, drayman, timber cutter, and general jack-of-all-trades, he exercised considerable independence and earned a comfortable living for his large family.

 

Writing in 1914, John Bethell remembered Donaldson as a man universally respected and one who really kept pace with his white neighbors. Donaldson's success can be attributed, in part, to his own resourcefulness. But he also benefited from the physical isolation and racial homogeneity that characterized the Pinellas frontier: out on the fringes of settlement there was very little organized social life, and thus little reason for whites to be overly concerned with the dictates of caste and class—particularly when the local black community consisted of a single family. The tolerance and respect accorded John Donaldson would not be extended to later black settlers, no matter how talented or resourceful they were.

 

St. Petersburg's pioneer era was relatively brief, surviving little more than a generation, from the mid-1850s to the late 1880s. But while it lasted—before the coming of the railroad, and before the technological wizardry of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford seemingly changed everything, allowing metropolitan values and institutions to extend their reach into the remotest of areas—this special period spawned lives of quiet courage and rustic simplicity that later Americans would find unimaginable. The pioneers who migrated to the lower Pinellas Peninsula came for a variety of reasons. Some were drawn by the simple promise of cheap land, others were chasing extravagant dreams of wealth and upward mobility, and still others were responding to the lure of the wilderness. But, in one way or another, nearly all of them reflected the rest- less temperament and enterprising spirit that dominated late nineteenth-century America. As the moral enthusiasms of the Civil War and Reconstruction gave way to the expansive energies of the Gilded Age, the pioneering frontiersman loomed larger than ever in the American consciousness, especially in undeveloped areas like Florida, where the frontier experience had not yet been reduced to an historical artifact suitable for caricature in dime novels. p 41 St. Petersburg and Florida Dream by Raymond Arsenault

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