Editor’s note: This is the beginning of our series of stories about Spring Hill and DeLand’s continuing struggle with racial disparities.
The history of African-Americans’ arrival in the United States is the history of slavery — of the forcible capture of black people from the African continent for lives of forced labor.
The origin of the traditionally African-American community of Spring Hill is rooted in slavery, as well.
In pre-Civil War Florida, citrus and timber plantations littered the state like so many ATMs. The houses and businesses we see now sit on land that once was orange groves, and citrus was good business.
Just a few miles from the present-day Spring Hill community, to the east, circa 1763-83, was the 20,000-acre Beresford plantation.
To the north, in what is now DeLeon Springs, was the large Starke plantation, circa 1851.
According to data from written and oral histories, these two plantations were likely the source of communities of freed slaves who ultimately settled in the DeLand area.
They didn’t all move to what we now call Spring Hill. It was one of at least five local historic black communities that emerged after the Civil War.
Other distinctive neighborhoods in DeLand whose residents were mostly African-Americans were Red City, the majority of which has by now been purchased by Stetson University, and Little Africa. Both of these neighborhoods surrounded what is now known as Painter’s Park, bisected by East Wisconsin Avenue.
There was also Dunn’s Bottom, at Garfield and Voorhis avenues, and Blackberry, Dug Out and Yamasee, also in DeLand.
“They all had their own little identity,” longtime resident and former City of DeLand Public Works Director Bo Davenport said.
Over time, as these communities began to fade into memory, “Spring Hill” became a catch-all description of DeLand’s African-American community.
In truth, Spring Hill is just one area — historically underserved and low on quality housing stock — where African-Americans settled in DeLand. Spring Hill is distinctive, however, because it developed mostly as a place where seasonal workers lived. Many of the houses were never intended to be long-term residences, and the endemic neglect has been hard to overcome.
The original Spring Hill — named for a natural spring near the corner of South Clara Avenue and Vermont Street — nestled against the boundaries of the City of DeLand.
Today, people define Spring Hill by many different sets of boundaries. One official set, however, was laid out when the City of DeLand and Volusia County jointly created a Community Redevelopment Agency in 2004, in an attempt to create a fund for public improvements in the neighborhood. Those boundaries are shown on the map accompanying this story.
A summary of the history of the area in the CRA master plan notes the small size and substandard conditions of many of Spring Hill’s houses. Many were built between the turn of the 20th century and the early 1950s, were undersized and weren’t connected to public water, sewage systems or electricity.
Over the years, including years when discrimination in housing and mortgage lending was legal, and people of color were welcome only in certain neighborhoods, those homes were sold to black residents.
“There’s a whole reason why blacks were steered to certain areas — because they were lower-value properties,” County Council Member and Realtor Barb Girtman said.
Longtime resident and businessman James E. Cusack talked about misconceptions about Spring Hill.
“People think of that area of Spring Hill, on [the south] side of West Beresford, as the total representation of the historic black community in the area,” Cusack said.
That just isn’t true, Cusack said.
Just two blocks away from the official boundary of the Spring Hill CRA is the historic J.W. Wright building, constructed in 1920.
Wright was one of the few black business owners at the turn of the century. In an address to the National Negro Business League in 1915, Wright, by then a successful citrus grower, explained that he had been able to buy his property for $300 after the devastating freeze in 1894, which decimated the citrus industry.
Wright, who had been a laborer for other growers, put his wages into buying his own land, becoming successful enough that he bought more property in DeLand — including a manufacturing plant on West Minnesota Avenue, and a lot at the corner of Voorhis and Clara avenues, where the large, two-story brick building named for him still sits.
The building, considered part of the nearby Yamasee neighborhood, once was home to a dentist office, beer garden, apartments and a grocery store.
It spawned its own neighborhood, known as Wright’s Corner.
“There were a lot of mom-and-pop shops. There was a black hotel, dentist, doctors, grocery store, service stations, restaurants and cafes. Wright’s Corner was really a hub,” Cusack said.
There was a theater next door to the Wright Building, and clubs, cafes and restaurants lined the street.
“My grandmother purchased a house on Adelle in the 1950s. At that time, Spring Hill was moving and shaking for the black community,” Girtman said. “Of course, my grandmother was more into religion than the juke joints down the road.”
Even then, at a time of bustling business in the black community, discrimination in lending, along with the historical disparity in wages between blacks and whites, and other damage from persistent racism, conspired to create separate and not equal standards of living.
Davenport said conditions now aren’t that different from the past. He sees some of his neighbors struggling at the bottom of the pay scale.
“It was always like how it is. They work, but they aren’t getting the wages to thrive,” Davenport said. “I had to work for 20 years so I could have just a little for myself.”
Fifty years after segregation, Spring Hill’s median annual household income, at $18,828, is 47 percent lower than the median household income of DeLand at-large, $39,902.
“The living conditions have improved, but the real change didn’t come. They still have to work two or three jobs to make things work,” Davenport said.
And what happened to the once-bustling center of commerce?
The reasons for its decline are myriad but not unfamiliar: the rise in illegal drug use in the 1980s and the subsequent crackdown that disproportionately affected minorities, the deaths of older residents whose children had moved on, and the prevalence of big-box stores like Walmart, which ran smaller businesses into the ground.
“There’s a lot of reason for a lack of wealth in the community … you can’t lay it in any one lap; it just is what it is,” Girtman said.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the 4-square-mile area identified as Spring Hill was considered a blighted community. Basic public utilities, like sewage systems, streetlights and road improvements, arrived in patchwork fashion. For example, some 100 streetlights, including replacements for those that were broken and never repaired, were installed in 1998 only after residents petitioned the county.
In 2004, the CRA was created to help address the problems, but three short years later, the Great Recession decimated its funding.
The recession had another effect — homes in Spring Hill and nearby were targeted by predatory lenders who offered easy access to cash. Once the bubble burst, those who had borrowed were deep underwater, and foreclosed homes were snapped up by investors who live all over the country.
The Volusia County Property Appraiser website shows multiple vacant homes in Spring Hill that are owned by investors in Delaware, Illinois and New Jersey, to name a few, who have no discernible ties to the area.
“There is a long history of why this happened. And history repeated itself in the recession,” Girtman said.
In some cases, she said, investors snapped up devalued properties and started renting them back to the former homeowners.
A generation later, rentals that had become homesteads reverted back to rentals.
“That was the reality for that community, and it’s not true for any other community nearby. We got what we got,” Girtman said. “That generation is used to making do.”
Although those in power have shown an interest in helping Spring Hill, little has been accomplished.
“In the better days of 2000-2007, there were a lot of plans and support, and now it’s 11 years later,” Girtman said.
Girtman, elected to the County Council in 2018 when she narrowly defeated a longtime incumbent, is hopeful that she and others will be able to make a difference by serving in political office.
Spring Hill deserves to share in the success that has brought nationwide publicity, tourism and economic prosperity to Downtown DeLand, Girtman said.
“A rising tide lifts all boats. And they’re a couple of blocks away, and are not able to enjoy or be a part of it,” she said.
Sections of the 100 and 200 blocks of West Voorhis Avenue are included in the Downtown DeLand CRA, which helped develop DeLand’s central business district.
But that doesn’t cover everyone in the community, according to Mary Allen, executive director of the African American Museum of the Arts, which is next door to the deteriorated Wright Building.
“The Downtown CRA stops at the Wright Building; it doesn’t include us,” Allen said.
She pointed to now-bustling Downtown DeLand.
“There’s lots of activity there, and we sit here,” she said.
Once again, plans for improving Spring Hill and the surrounding area are being made.
This year, a new community resource center will be built near Spring Hill Park, at the corner of Beresford and Adelle avenues. A community garden for residents was begun in 2017, with support from Stetson University, in the 500 block of South Delaware Avenue. Greater Union First Baptist Church bought the Wright Building in 2016, and hopes to restore it.
Girtman says all these actions are steps in the right direction.
“We’re sowing the seeds, and now we have to connect that all together,” Girtman said.
— This article draws upon myriad sources, including: history books, news articles, historical documents, oral histories and resident interviews. Thanks to the Spring Hill Community Resource Center, the West Volusia Historical Society, and members of the Spring Hill community.
Editor’s note: Our next story in this series will address how two governmental mechanisms — annexation, and the Community Redevelopment Agency concept — could help Spring Hill.