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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Former slave is sixth Great Brooksvillian
City honors the slain founder of a church and a school.
By LOGAN NEILL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 4, 2007
BROOKSVILLE - Tears streamed down Mabel Sims' face when she heard that the Brooksville City Council had chosen her great-great-uncle, Arthur St. Clair, to be the city's newest Great Brooksvillian.
Her only wish was that he could have been there to receive the honor.
"I think he would have been so proud," said Sims, who attended Monday night's City Council meeting surrounded by members of her family. "It's certainly a fitting honor."
The first African-American to receive the title, St. Clair died 130 years ago after being shot and killed by a still-unknown assailant on a lonely road outside of Brooksville, cutting short the life of a man whom many feel would almost certainly have gone on to become one of Florida's greatest early black leaders.
"He achieved greater status than most African-Americans of his time," said Roger Landers, a Hernando historian. "That status no doubt led to his assassination."
A former slave, St. Clair worked the plantation owned by John and Marina Sanderson May, whose vast land holdings surrounded what would eventually become the town of Brooksville. After winning his freedom, St. Clair, who was mostly self-educated, began to put his knowledge and popularity in the black community to work in an attempt to shatter the racial barriers that continued to grip the region after the Civil War.
St. Clair was chosen to be the county's first post-Civil War voter registrar. Later, the governor appointed him to lead the state's Third Brigade, a militia that included men from Hernando, Sumter and Citrus counties.
A Baptist minister, St. Clair founded Bethlehem Progressive Baptist Church and later, with his brother Hampton, established Hernando County's first all-black school. And though he ran unsuccessfully three times for the state Legislature, St. Clair easily won the Republican Party's blessing to return for a fourth try at the seat.
However, it would not come to be. Just two months before the election, in 1877, St. Clair presided over the marriage of a mixed-race couple in Brooksville. A few days later, while traveling from what is now Dade City, St. Clair and several companions were jumped by a group of about 20 white people.
Despite a climate of racial hostility in Hernando County at the time, both blacks and whites openly voiced their disgust over St. Clair's murder. A coroner's inquest turned up no concrete evidence to indict anyone. Later, a fire inside the county courthouse destroyed records that many believed held the key to finding St. Clair's killer.
Brooksville Vice Mayor Frankie Burnett, an African-American, said that honoring St. Clair as this year's Great Brooksvillian sheds light on an individual whose courage helped to change the plight of so many others.
"The hope is that people will want to know more about him and the things he did," Burnett said.
St. Clair, the sixth person chosen to be Great Brooksvillian, joins a list of local dignitaries that includes longtime civic leaders Alfred McKethan and Joe Johnston Jr., local historian Virginia Jackson, Brooksville City Hall Art Gallery maven Mary Alice Queiros and Rogers' Christmas House Village founder Margaret Ghiotto.
A dedication ceremony will be take place in City Council chambers at 5 p.m. Oct. 17.