My wife and I were talking about the Bahamas recently and she said she thought Sidney Poitier, who was born in Miami, had Bahamian parents. She checked: true.
I was interested because I had just learned that one of Fort Lauderdale’s best-known celebrities, jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, also had Bahamian parents. Cannonball was not only one of the world’s jazz greats, playing with Miles Davis and John Coltrane among others, but also taught music at our own Dillard High School. He founded the Dillard High Jazz Band, rated one of the best such bands in the country today.
And of course, as I have written in previous columns, there is the Frankee Lewis Donation. That’s the story of the very first non-native residents here, Charles and Frankee Lewis, who came over from the Bahamas and settled on the New River in 1792.
The Lewis family story was documented by passing travelers from Spain, which had not yet ceded Florida to the United States. The Lewises, with their three children, lived in a wood-framed house and raised guava, lemons, limes and other crops. At the time the closest Florida city was St. Augustine, so what they had to sell or trade went right back to the Bahamas.
On one trip in 1819, Charles and his eldest son were killed in a hurricane. Frankee decided to stay and manage the farm on her own. Her residence became official after she wrote to the King of Spain requesting title to the land. At the time the regent was trying to hold off a threatening France. Amazingly, Frankee received a reply and was not only given title to her land but also a land grant of 640 acres in what is today Rio Vista and Cooley Hammock. It was called the Frankee Lewis Donation, which is what Spanish grants were called then.
Unlike some communities, like the later-arriving Cubans, many notable Bahamian achievements in South Florida have fallen under the broader African American label.
According to the research of Dr. Michele Dallas, executive producer of the upcoming documentary Crossing the Waters, workers from the Bahamas helped build early Miami and were the primary labor force for the first 50 years. The homes in Coconut Grove owe much to the skills of Bahamian craftsmen, who were masters of coral and limestone masonry. They helped construct the first hotel, The Peacock Inn, and Villa Viscaya, now the Viscaya Museum and Gardens.
The Adderleys who gave birth to “Cannonball” and his brother Nat, a jazzman in his own right, were not the only Adderleys of note in Fort Lauderdale. The Bahamas were home to numerous branches with the surname.
Charles Arlington Adderley came over in 1920 and farmed in the Middle River area. He eventually sold his land to Wayne Huizenga. Years later the Blockbuster mogul donated much of that parcel for what we know as Mills Pond Park. So when you play softball or picnic there, think back to an early 20th-century Bahamian settler.
But this Adderley was not done there. He used money from the sale to start a construction business, which expanded and helped build such high-profile landmarks as the Galleria Mall and the historic Gateway Theater.
Other Bahamian Adderleys and their progeny abounded in the city. An Adderley, Frank, became Fort Lauderdale’s first black police chief. Adderley descendants joined hundreds of other Bahamians, many with large families, in churches from Pentecostal to Episcopalian on Sundays.
Another important contribution came from the Burrows family, who emigrated from the Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale in 1920. Their son George Sr. founded a prominent utility, the Burrows Electric Company. George Burrows Sr. was the first black licensed master electrical technician in Fort Lauderdale.
According to Dr. Dallas, the Sistrunk Boulevard company’s ensuing success in northwest Fort Lauderdale “was the vehicle that allowed him to aid many who would otherwise be distressed.” Burrows was heavily involved in civic affairs, from co-founding the Fort Lauderdale Negro Chamber of Commerce to providing the lights for Dillard High School football games.
Arriving a hundred years before Frank Stranahan and adding to a long line of our city’s pioneers, Bahamians have always played their part. It’s time more people knew about it.