It was one of South’s earliest free Black towns. Now it fights a highway.

Xander Peters
Beverly Steele and her husband, Cliff Hughes, stand in front of the ancestors' wall in the community center in Royal, Florida, June 21, 2022. Locals must live past age 100 to make it onto the wall. Their portraits are symbols of the community's history, dating back more than 150 years.
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Royal is home to one of Florida’s oldest African American communities. It’s also in the proposed path of a turnpike extension. Residents say churches, homes, and a cemetery containing formerly enslaved people could all be impacted.

The community learned of the proposal in December, and residents have been protesting ever since. 

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For over a century, silence kept the rural, Black community of Royal, Florida, safe. But in the face of being torn apart by a turnpike expansion, residents are speaking up, determined to keep the town intact.

Floridians across the state claim that their leaders are consumed by development ambitions, due in large part to a population that’s grown by nearly 3 million since 2010, according to census data.

But Royal residents say their situation is unique: They have not only a community but also a history to protect. 

Officially, what’s known today as Royal was founded in 1865, but the community’s oral history can be traced back for decades prior to the Civil War, residents say. And part of what they want the world to know is that Royal has survived the nation’s legacy of hate.

In the violent, post-Reconstruction era, remaining silent helped keep the community safe, but that won’t work any longer. So its small band of community organizers is speaking up.

“We need to stay steadfast,” Beverly Steele, one of the organizers, tells a crowd at a meeting in June.

“Amen!” several shout back.

“Right here!” Beverly Steele exclaims as she points to the floor beneath her chair in Royal’s small community center. The town is home to one of Florida’s oldest African American communities. She then points to the ceiling and adds, “My building would be under the loop.” 

The building, a former cafeteria, is the last relic of Royal’s segregated school. It was restored after the unincorporated community of 1,200 earned historical recognition from the state in 2010. 

The loop is the Northern Florida Extension – a turnpike construction project authorized under a 2019 bill approved by state lawmakers to construct three new toll roads. The bill was repealed, but the goal of paving through rural central Florida was revived last year, when lawmakers commissioned a study of potential turnpike extension routes. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

For over a century, silence kept the rural, Black community of Royal, Florida, safe. But in the face of being torn apart by a turnpike expansion, residents are speaking up, determined to keep the town intact.

Royal is in the proposed path. Residents say churches, homes, and a cemetery containing the remains of formerly enslaved people could all be impacted.

The community learned of the proposal in December. Warning letters from lawyers about possible eminent domain arrived soon after, and residents have been protesting ever since. The state historical designation gets them a step closer to being recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, which could provide protection from the turnpike, but that’s just one of the strategies they’re trying in an all-out effort to keep their neighborhood intact. In the face of racial hostility in the past, silence kept the community alive. But this time, residents are giving voice to their determination, educating the public about Royal’s history and its role in the development of Black American society. 

Ms. Steele looks across the room to her husband, Cliff Hughes, speaking to him with her eyes. Ms. Steele’s mother turned 100 in December. Royal has always been her home. Their family was among the community’s founders when formerly enslaved people settled it nearly two centuries ago.

“If I have to move her from this community, I’m going to look her in the eyes and tell her, ‘I did everything in my power, my will,’” Ms. Steele says of their effort to stop the turnpike extension.

“We’re not going to lay down,” she says.

Unlimited travel, uneven costs

The turnpike project is currently in its planning phase and will follow the Florida Department of Transportation’s alternative corridors evaluation, says FDOT spokesperson Angela Starke. The evaluation process will narrow potential corridors to one. FDOT hopes to “minimize the impacts” to Royal. 

A status report is due to the governor’s office in December. Public information meetings will begin early next year. But the deadline for the study itself has been extended from this year to the end of 2023 – a result of the Royal community’s organizing efforts. 

Ms. Steele doesn’t believe the state intentionally targeted their community. 

“But I do believe that once they found out that it was mostly people of color that live around here, it didn’t make a difference,” she says. 

Floridians across the state claim that their leaders are consumed by the ambition to expand, as the state develops rural and urban areas alike at an unprecedented pace. That’s due in large part to a population that’s grown by nearly 3 million since 2010, according to census data. 

But highway development and its attendant disruption to communities are not unique to Florida.  

The U.S. Interstate Highway System’s establishment in 1956 was a hallmark of 20th-century innovation, signaling a future in which America’s ability to travel was limitless within its borders.

But on the road to that future, transportation leaders made decisions that still echo loudly today.

Nationally, more than 1 million people lost their homes due to the interstate system’s construction, according to U.S. Department of Transportation estimates. But the agency’s 2017 “Beyond Traffic: 2045” report also notes that it was Black and Latino neighborhoods across the nation that bore the brunt of the highway system’s achievement.

In central Florida’s Orlando, the initial plan was to construct Interstate 4 from the city’s downtown through the high-income, mostly white suburb of Winter Park. But Winter Park residents bucked that idea, and instead pushed the route through Orlando’s historically diverse Parramore neighborhood, creating a physical barrier between the now-segregated and low-income neighborhood and downtown Orlando. By the time the highway was completed in the 1960s, hundreds of Parramore properties had been seized in the process.

Development eventually trickled beyond the Orlando area. 

Xander Peters
State officials have ambitions to build a turnpike extension through rural central Florida. In Royal, it would cut through the countryside, impacting homes and parts of the community's history, including graves where, residents say, formerly enslaved people are buried.

In the early 1970s, construction of Interstate 75 split Royal in half, but residents remained quiet about it. They did so out of modesty, Royal residents say, but also for the sake of safety, since, even a century after Reconstruction, Black landownership was still perceived as a threat.

Building – and maintaining – a community

Officially, what’s known today as Royal was founded in 1865, but the community’s oral history can be traced back for decades prior to the Civil War, residents say.

Spain ruled Florida before the territory joined the United States in 1845. For the Spanish crown, the spread of Roman Catholicism outweighed the need to enforce bondage. 

Many enslaved people across the U.S. knew this, and some managed to escape to freedom in Florida. Settlers first spotted free Black people where Royal is today in 1848. The community’s oral history states that its earliest settlers were descended from noble dynasties before their livelihoods were stolen through enslavement. They named the community “Royalsville” early on to remind their children whom they come from.

Now, it’s the community’s turn to remind the state who they are.

“This is really an environmental justice issue,” says Michael McGrath, an organizer with Sierra Club Florida and No Roads to Ruin, a coalition opposing toll road expansion. The state’s latest highway proposals “will really be disruptive towards the legacy, culture, and fabric of an entire rural community.”  

Upon learning of the turnpike extension project, Royal organizers provided the state with their own proposed routes, which they say were declined. Royal community members also requested a meeting with Gov. Ron DeSantis, and say his office declined.

The silence on the state’s part has been confounding for a number of reasons, Royal organizers say:

  • Ms. Steele is working alongside a University of Central Florida anthropologist to get the community recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, and in April the Florida Division of Historical Resources confirmed Royal’s eligibility for federal recognition. 
  • Sumter County, where Royal is located, is among the regions where statewide candidates like Governor DeSantis – a Republican currently pursuing his second term – make a habit of visiting during reelection years. In fact, in 2018, Sumter County had the state’s highest gubernatorial general-election voter turnout.
  • In April, the governor visited a nearby Sumter County area – The Villages, an extensive, wealthy, largely white, and politically influential retirement community.

Mr. Hughes shakes his head at the idea that the governor would decline to hear their voices. 

Silence is no longer a solution

Nearby Florida counties – Levy and Citrus – voted against the extension in recent months. As have elected representatives in neighboring rural municipalities. 

Officials with the Southwest Florida Water Management District also objected to the state’s proposed routes in a February letter to the director of the turnpike enterprise. “Any option that would bisect District-owned conservation lands or sever District lands from other existing conservation lands would be inconsistent with the original intent behind the use of taxpayer dollars to acquire those conservation lands,” water management district representatives wrote.

Sumter County, however, hasn’t taken a clear stance against the turnpike extension, and Royal organizers say they won’t stop until their own county commissioners are listening. Part of what they want them – and the world – to know is that their community has survived the nation’s legacy of hate.  

For roughly a century after the Civil War, Southern Democrats and their opposition to racial reconciliation were the dominant force through central Florida. In 1920, an Ocoee mob of white residents massacred dozens of Black community members after Mose Norman, an African American farmer, was turned away from the ballot box earlier that afternoon. Three years later, the nearby Black community of Rosewood was burned to the ground by a mob after a white woman accused a Black man of physical and sexual assault.

And in 1956, while inside a Wildwood store one afternoon, Jesse Woods, a young Black farmer from Royal, was accused of proclaiming to a local white schoolteacher, “Hello, baby.” Even though she claimed Mr. Woods said nothing to her, he was arrested and thrown into the Wildwood jail. The door to his cell was left unlocked that night and the jail unguarded. Members of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter walked into Mr. Woods’ cell and beat him nearly to death.

Later, through negotiations with the NAACP, a trial was held, but Mr. Woods refused to completely identify the men who beat him.

“Even if he could, he did not,” Ms. Steele says. 

She believes it was Mr. Woods’ silence that saved their community from burning that night.

But silence is no longer a solution, residents say. Silence won’t keep their community intact. So their small band of community organizers will continue to speak up in ways that can’t be missed any more than their lime-green shirts reading “No Build” can be. Several Royal residents are wearing them as they trickle into the local New Life Baptist Church on a Tuesday evening in late June for an update on the turnpike fight. 

The crowd sits quietly, listening, until a groan breaks out across the audience when Mr. Hughes tells them the governor declined their meeting invitation. 

Ms. Steele steps up and takes the microphone. The crowd hushes up.

“We need to stay steadfast,” she tells the crowd.

“Amen!” several shout back.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Angela Starke’s last name.

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