The Rise and Fall of an African American Inner City: The Case of Parramore, Orlando


When driving around a city it is easy to overlook the erosion of the historical factors that have shaped a neighborhood. Such is the case when considering the trajectory of urban development in the postwar racially segregated American South. The historical timeline of Florida’s modern development contains objectionable incidents of violence, disenfranchisement and disparity among social classes. The hidden story of the intersection between racial oppression and urbanization became clear to me as I explored the social, cultural and economic decline of the African American community of Parramore in Orlando, Florida. In order to do that, I have analyzed the differences and similarities between the impact of racial segregation and uneven economic development presented in the United States as a whole and in Parramore, mapping out the main reasons that forced the African American community to decay: the formation of black settlements after Reconstruction, disenfranchisement and racial violence against black Americans, and the disruption of inner cities through the construction of public housing and interstate highways.

After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the racist customs left over from America’s legacy of slavery reappeared in the form of “codes” that regulated the settlement and commuting of African Americans. As the industrialization of the country developed throughout the 20th century, the history of racial segregation in America paralleled the history of the rise and the decline of the inner cities. Historians C. Woodward and William McFeely write that, with the black codes, African Americans became disfranchised throughout the South and that “Neither equality nor aspirations for equality in any department of life were for them.”[1] Hence, as Reconstruction ended, racist politicians succeeded in promoting racially discriminatory policies.

African-American Settlements in Central Florida

In Florida’s Orange County, as in other Southern communities, the first African American settlements appeared through the influence of white employers who provided housing for black domestic help and grove workers.[2] In 1870, businessman and diplomat Henry Sanford opened Georgetown for his black citrus pickers.[3] Fifteen years later, Winter Park developers plotted and laid out the community of Hannibal Square for their black employees.[4] In Orlando, James Magruder, a white homebuilder, subdivided into lots the location of the first African American community, Jonestown, in the southeast section of downtown.[5] Although Jonestown emerged as the first, Parramore became the largest black community in Orlando. Following the same pattern of development, Parramore appeared after James B. Parramore, a white confederate soldier and ex-Orlando mayor plotted the area for the community in 1881.[6] Parramore emerged from the relationship between the two races in which whites decided where African Americans could live and work.

Similar to rest of the South, Florida developed an aggressive pattern of racial violence and disenfranchisement. Historian Irvin Winsboro writes that between 1880 and 1930 white mobs lynched 3,220 blacks in the South.[7] At odds with the common perception that Florida has always been a moderate region in the South, during these 50 years the Sunshine state maintained one of the highest per capita rates of extralegal deaths.[8] According to historian Tameka Hobbs:

Even though Florida was one of the most sparsely populated of the Southern states, for the period between 1882 and 1930, it had the highest rate of lynching per 100,000 of its black citizens at 79.8, followed by Mississippi with 52.8. By the 1940s, Florida was only one of two states with recorded lynchings.[9]

Central Florida suffered the same fate as racial violence spread throughout the country during the First Great Migration when whites began physically threatening blacks when they attempted to legally vote.[10] In 1920, after African Americans tried to vote in Ocoee, whites destroyed the entire black section of the city.[11] The mob moved to other counties of the region killing around 50 African Americans and burning all of their properties.[12] Three years after the Ocoee Massacre, white violence against blacks destroyed the entire small town of Rosewood, Florida.[13] The white mob burned black churches and black houses and tortured, mutilated and killed six black Americans. The Ku Klux Klan’s revival in the 1920s intensified white brutality. Newspapers across the state reported that the Klan recruited young people and organized public parades in small towns across the state.[14]

Beyond brutal violence, the 1885 Florida Constitution also hampered blacks from voting by creating barriers such as multiple ballot boxes, requiring literacy tests and poll taxes.[15] In Orlando, the White Voters Executive Committee of the Democratic Party controlled primary elections and denied voting rights to blacks until 1950.[16] Hence, white brutal violence and institutionalized acts converged into making African-Americans completely disenfranchised.

Uneven development and the Federal Investment in Urban Sprawl

For much of the twentieth century Orlando’s black society strove to establish itself as a thriving community. By 1940, Parramore enjoyed relatively good economic development with some successful professionals and establishments. The leadership of African Americans such as Sylvester Hankins Jr. and Dr. William Wells demonstrated how individuals helped foster Parramore’s development. Hankins Jr. was a physician born in Parramore in 1895. He attended Johnson Academy through the eighth grade and helped organize the Orange County Branch of the NAACP.[17] Throughout his life, Hankins Jr. prospered as a member of the Mental Health Board of Orange County.[18] In addition to his job, as an anti-segregation activist Hankins Jr. constantly provided free healthcare and tuition donations to low-income African Americans.[19]

Another example was Dr. William Monroe Wells, who emerged as a successful black physician in Orlando after his arrival in 1917. A contemporary to Hankins Jr., Wells provided free healthcare for low-income black Orlandoans with the assistance of Mrs. Josie Belle Jackson.[20] Besides his daily job, Dr. Wells had an important role fostering local culture and providing entertainment. In the 1920s, Wells built a hotel and a nightclub in Parramore.[21] Performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie played at the venue and later spent the night at the Wells’ Hotel.[22] The South Street Casino provided entertainment for black Orlandoans to dance and play. , Dr. Tim Lucas Adams, affirms that his parents used to attend parties and his father had the opportunity to play trumpet at the venue.[23] Dr. Wells and his establishments’ success represented thriving moments for the community.

Just like several others African-American neighborhoods, Parramore suffered bold urban transformations after 1940. As the first Great Migration led African Americans to depart for the North and West, the South experienced a wave of revitalization through federal funding that led to super charged urban development.[24] Postwar growth unequally affected suburbs and inner cities in which governments and private corporations nurtured urban development in ways that maintained racial segregation and social inequality.[25]

On one side, business and political leaders focused on developing suburbs. They favored building the interstate highway system, single-family housing, and suburban employment, with an emphasis on the car as the main means of transportation.[26] White, middle-class families enjoyed by far the greatest opportunity to take advantage of these policies, moving to suburbs with the government funding of agencies that favored whites over minorities in access to home loans and other benefits.

Meanwhile, as the private sector developed the suburbs, the public sector turned toward transforming inner cities with projects of “urban renewal.” These programs included “slum clearance” projects that demolished existing black communities, while concentrating African Americans in public housing projects that reproduced racial segregation, social inequality, and deficient infrastructure.[27] Another profound change cut black inner cities in the middle with the construction of the National Highway System, as interstate construction caused displacement of hundreds of thousands residents all over the country.[28]

Affordable housing in Parramore, Orlando

As Central Florida’s population grew after World War II, downtown Orlando suffered the same decay as other downtowns across the United States. Service providers and residents moved to growing suburbs.[29] Similar to what happened in other inner cities around the country, Parramore suffered drastic changes in the 1940s. Sponsored by the Reorganization Act of 1939 and located in Parramore, Griffin Park became the first affordable housing project in town.[30] The public housing project contained 174 units and received numerous families who lived in Jonestown.[31] The slum clearance program demolished Jonestown on the east side of the railroad and relocated black families to Parramore on the west side of “the tracks.”[32]

Still in 1940, in the same place where Jonestown once existed, the government began the construction of a “white housing project” with 176 units called Reeves Terrace.[33] Ready in 1943, the project became home for low-income whites, most military and civilian war workers. Thus, as part of the federal policy of slum clearance, Reeves Terrace and Griffin Park emerged as examples of the racialization of the space in Orlando. The construction of Griffin Park together with the destruction of Jonestown and the building of Reeves Terrace symbolized the rearrangement of the city as African Americans were forced moving to the west, and whites moved to the east.

Interstate-4 and National Highway System

In addition to affordable housing, the construction of the Interstate Highway System reshaped the United States after World War II. President Eisenhower signed the Highway Act in 1956, and one year later Florida started the construction of Interstate 4 (I-4) from Tampa to Daytona Beach. Unintended consequences of I-4 construction affected African American communities in and around downtown Orlando. Black neighborhoods such as Parramore suffered devastating effects due to the discriminatory way expressway routes were chosen.[34] In this way, the United States quickly enhanced its technology and infrastructure while reinforcing the roots of persistent racial segregation.

In Central Florida, residents and authorities of Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, organized a successful campaign against I-4, worried about possible problems brought by the building of an expressway through the middle of the city. In the 1950s, most Winter Park residents came from a white middle-to upper-class backgrounds, with many having migrated from northern cities where they had seen the destructive effects of highway construction through downtown areas. In 1961, Winter Park citizens pressured the State Road Department and the Bureau of Public Roads in Washington D.C. to push the expressway trajectory to the outskirts of the city.[35] Residents sent letters to newspapers and the city’s civic groups joined the protest.[36] In the end, the city of Winter Park avoided its downtown’s destruction.

Unlike Winter Park, Parramore could not avoid the construction of I-4 through its land. As Orlando’s main newspaper, The Sentinel, approved of I-4 construction, some city residents questioned authorities about funding, environmental destruction, and the expressway route.[37] The public debate divided residents between those who wanted the highway passing through downtown Orlando, and those who wanted the highway to bypass the downtown area.[38] However, Parramore’s voice did not appear anywhere during the debate.

Hence, in 1957, after only few months of discussions the construction of I-4 began. The construction displaced 551 properties in Parramore and reinforced the separation that already existed between the neighborhood and downtown Orlando.[39] The elevated structure of I-4 ran along Division Street, and separated Amelia Avenue, Livingston Avenue, Robinson Avenue, Washington Street, Central Avenue and Church Street into east and west sides.[40] Before I-4, all of these streets directly connected Parramore to downtown Orlando. As a result, from the 1970s to the 1980s, Parramore suffered visible impoverishment while downtown improved. Thus, the highway served to create a modern-day class barrier that enhanced the existing racial boundary. I-4 reinforced the racial segregation that already existed when a white businessman plotted Parramore’s land in 1881.

The Consequences for Parramore

The transformations presented in this article were plainly reflected in data collected since 1980. Until the 1950s, Parramore’s population increased. After 1960, the neighborhood’s population aggressively declined. In a planning report from 1987, the city’s department affirmed that, in 1960, Parramore’s population reached 10,630 residents; in 1970, this number reduced to 7,273 and in 1980, decreased to a number of 5,262 residents.[41] Comparing the economic development between the city of Orlando and Parramore, the Orlando Sentinel reporter Sherri Owens wrote that in 1960, Parramore’s median household income reached $2,700 and Orlando’s median household income was around $3,200.[42] In 1980, economic disparity had dramatically increased. According to Owens, while Parramore’s average household income was around $6,000, Orlando’s number reached the value of $14,000.[43] Hence, income inequality between Orlando and Parramore increased from $500 in 1960 to $8,000 in 1980. Other important data presented a great disparity between unemployment rates of Parramore and Orlando. In 1960, the unemployment rate in Parramore reached around 7 percent, and Orlando unemployment rate reached 4 percent.[44] Twenty years later, Parramore’s unemployment rate cleared 10 percent, and Orlando’s rate surpassed 5 percent.[45] Hence, the uneven development after World War II between African American neighborhoods and white suburbs contributed to the economic decline of Parramore.

For much of twentieth century Orlando’s black society strove to establish itself as a thriving community. By 1940, although segregated from the rest of the developing areas, Parramore experienced relatively good economic development with a number of African Americans finding success in local business.

The construction of I-4 physically disrupted Parramore, as houses and commerce were destroyed and people were displaced. As a gigantic, elevated construction, I-4 established a concrete division between Parramore and Downtown, a class and racial barrier that marginalized the West from the East with sharply divergent incomes and rates of unemployment. Thus, I-4 appeared to reinforce borders already established by places like the Division Street and the railroad.

Until 1980, Parramore’s history appeared as one blatant case in which the process of suburbanization contributed to the reinforcement of racial segregation and the impoverishment of black neighborhoods reproduced in many other communities throughout the United States. The main factors that led to Parramore’s decay were the historic disenfranchisement of African Americans, the use of physical violence through lynchings, massacres and bombings, and the community’s powerlessness in fighting the disruption and social segregation imposed by the construction of the I-4 and public housing since the 1950s.

Yuri Gama is a recently admitted Ph.D. student at University of Massachusetts in Amherst.  A Brazilian urban researcher, he is interested in the history of cities, social movements, public transportation, and the intersection of racial oppression and social inequality. 


[1] C. Vann Woodward and William S. McFeely, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition with a New Afterword by Will, Commemorative edition (Oxford University Press, USA, 2001), 06.

[2] Tana Mosier Porter. “Segregation and Desegregation in Parramore: Orlando’s African American Community.” The Florida historical quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 3, 2004, 292.

[3] Porter, Segregation and Desegregation in Parramore, 292.

[4] Porter, Segregation and Desegregation in Parramore, 292.

[5] Kevin M. McCarthy, African American Sites in Florida (Pineapple Press Inc., 2007), 196.

[6] Joy Wallace Dickinson, “Exploring the Path to Parramore’s Past,” Orlando Sentinel (June 26, 2005). Web.

[7] Irvin D. S. Winsboro, Old South, New South, Or Down South?: Florida and the Modern Civil Rights Movement (West Virginia University Press, 2009), 06.

[8] Winsboro, Old South, New South, Or Down South, 06.

[9] Tameka Bradley Hobbs, “Strange Fruit: An Overview of Lynching in America,” in Go Sound the Trumpet!: Selections in Florida’s African American History, ed. David H. Jackson Jr. and Canter Brown Jr. (Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2005), 97.

[10] Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, “Black History Bonus: The Ocoee Riot,” Essence 19, no. 10 (1989): 62.

[11] Hobbs, Strange Fruit, 98.

[12] Paul Ortiz, “Ocoee, Florida: ‘Remembering ‘The Single Bloodiest Day in Modern U.S. Political History’,” Facing South – The Institute for Southern Studies, 2010

[13] Marvin Dunn, The Beast in Florida: A History of Anti-Black Violence (University Press of Florida, 2013), 100.

[14] Ben Green, Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr. Simon and Schuster, 1999, 31.

[15] Porter, Segregation and Desegregation in Parramore, 294.

[16] Cassandra Fyotek, “Historic Orange County: The Story of Orlando and Orange County,” (HPN Books, 2009), 46.

[17] Geraldine F. Thompson, Black America Series: Orlando, Florida, (Arcadia Publishing, 2003), 25-30.

[18] Orlando Sentinel, “Dr. I. Sylvester Hankins, Black Civic Leader,” 3 Star Edition (Orlando, FL), August 25, 1991.

[19] Orlando Sentinel, Dr. I. Sylvester Hankins, Black Civic Leader, August 28, 1991.

[20] Wells Built Museum of African American History and Culture Website,” PAST, INC, accessed May 22, 2015,

[21] Orlando Sentinel. “Doctor’s Historic Home was ‘a place for hospitality,’” December 26, 2006, B7.

[22] Orlando Sentinel, Doctor’s Historic Home was ‘a place for hospitality, December 26, 2006, B7.

[23] Dr. Tim Lucas Adams, interviewed by Yuri K. Gama, May 19, 2015, interview realized by e-mail.

[24] Bruce J. Schulman Assistant Professor of History University of California at Los Angeles, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt : Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980 (Oxford University Press, 1991), 220.

[25] Myron Orfield, “Atlanta Metropatterns: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability,” ed. David C. Soule, Urban Sprawl: A Comprehensive Reference Guide (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 175.

[26] Raymond A. Mohl and Mark H. Rose, Interstate: Highway Politics and Policy since 1939, (University of Tennessee Press, 2012), 95.

[27] Raymond Mohl, “Race and Housing in the Postwar City: An Explosive History,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94, no. 01, (Chicago, 2001): 13.

[28] Mohl and Rose, Interstate: Highway Politics and Policy since 1939, 152.

[29] Ruth L. Steiner; Scott A. Wright. “Travel in New Urbanist and Traditional Communities: A Case Study of Downtown Orlando,” (Florida Department of Transportation, 2000), 16.

[30] Sherri M. Owens, “Warehouse, shelters are too plentiful for residents,” Orlando Sentinel, November 3, 1997.

[31] Thompson, Black America Series, 04.

[32] Thompson, Black America Series, 04.

[33] Goldie Blumenstyk, “Under The Roof Of Tradition Authority Clings To Old Ways Of Funding Low-income Housing,” Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida), February 7, 1988.

[34] Gary R. Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida (University Press of Florida, 2008), 247.

[35] Henry Balch, “Tampa-Orlando Interstate Link about Done,” Orlando Sentinel, February 1961.

[36] Richard E. Foglesong, Prologue to Light Rail: The Interstate – 4 Controversy in Winter Park, 1999, 15.

[37] Yeilding and Provost, Callahan-Holden-Parramore-Lake Dot: Historic and Architectural Survey, (1988), 05.

[38] Yeilding and Provost, Callahan Holden-Parramore Lake Dot, 05.

[39] Foglesong, Prologue to Light Rail, 18.

[40] Howard, Needles, Tammen, and Bergendoff. “Orlando-Winter Park Expressway: Engineering Design Report,” (Orlando, 1953), Plates 18 to 27, 32.

[41] Orlando Planning and Development Department. Holden-Parramore Neighborhood Plan. (November, 1987), 7.

[42] Owens, “Warehouse, shelters are too plentiful for residents,” Orlando Sentinel, November 3, 1997.

[43] Owens, “Warehouse, shelters are too plentiful for residents,” Orlando Sentinel, November 3, 1997.

[44] Owens, “Warehouse, shelters are too plentiful for residents,” Orlando Sentinel, November 3, 1997.

[45] Owens, “Warehouse, shelters are too plentiful for residents,” Orlando Sentinel, November 3, 1997.