Henry Davis, president of the Bealsville Inc. civic group, had a blunt message for the families gathered Monday to dedicate a plaque recognizing Bealsville's history.
"Whatever happens, it's important that future generations know where we came from," he told the crowd of about 100 at the Bealsville Recreation Center, 5009 Nesmith Road.
"We need to keep it moving, to take this responsibility and carry it forward."
In this enclave of family farms and small, tidy homes southeast of Plant City, the aim to preserve Bealsville's history is taking on renewed urgency.
Longtime residents know it by heart: In 1865, 12 emancipated slaves from Hopewell, Springhead and other towns staked out a community all their own. It was named Bealsville for Alfred Beal, a son of former slave Mary Reddick.
Now a century and a half later, economic pressures and changing demographics are altering the face of Bealsville and changing what for generations existed solely as a black community. According to the census, Bealsville and its surrounding area, including Hopewell, Keysville, Coronet and part of Turkey Creek, have lost more than half their population since 2000. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanics calling the area home has grown by 50 percent.
Come what may, Davis and others said, it's important that Bealsville not lose sight of its origins.
Under a canopy of live oaks and cool overcast skies, the people gathered outside to unveil the marker enshrining the community's history. Two grand-daughters of emancipated slaves, Leola McDonald, 95, and Audrey Wright, 90, pulled down the white covering to reveal the raised gold letters.
"It's important to those who came before me and to those who will come after me," Wright said. "Thank God I was able to see this."
The dedication followed an eight-month effort by Bealsville Inc., Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and the Hillsborough County Historical Advisory Council to create the marker. In addition to describing the community's founding, it lists the original 12 settlers.
Initially called Howell's Creek for former slaveholder Sarah Howell, who helped the settlers, the town was named for Beal in 1923 after successive freezes devastated crops. Beal purchased the farms and sold them back to the owners to ensure future generations would stay to till the land.
For decades, the farms and small houses were passed on to sons and daughters. The residents had their own school — the Glover School at 5110 Horton Road — a couple of corner stores and their own churches. Reluctant to sell to outsiders, the community remained largely unchanged until the 1960s and '70s when many young people left for college and jobs in large cities. Gradually, a way of life changed.
"Now it's mostly a multicultural community where before, when I was growing up, it was an African-American community," Bealsville resident Doreatha Brown, 71, said.
Brown's father, Joshua Holloman, worked at a phosphate mine in Mulberry and farmed his property, growing collard greens, mustard greens, peas, beans and strawberries.
Many residents were related and most knew each other, so that if a child acted up it was sure to get back to his parents.
The town's children attended the same school, Glover, until the 10th grade when they enrolled at Marshall High School, at the time an all-black high school in Plant City.
In the 1950s and early '60s, before air conditioning and television became fixtures, children played outside. Warm evenings brought out their parents to chat with neighbors and sip sweet tea. In the summers, children went to the community center for arts and crafts and attended Bible study at the Antioch Baptist Church, established in 1868 and the first of five churches in Bealsville.
With an emphasis on education, many Bealsville children went on to college and some returned to teach at Glover, including McDonald and Brown, who taught at the school in the 1960s and credited McDonald for her decision to become an educator.
"It's different now," said Rosalyn Wright Davis, 65, who grew up Bealsville and graduated from Florida A&M in 1971. "I don't know a lot of the people who live here. Back then, everybody knew everybody. And everybody watched out for each other. When the nonrelatives, people not related to the original settlers, moved in that's when the community started to change."
Protecting the community's history is important, residents say, because while other black communities founded after the Civil War dissolved under racially motivated violence, threats and unscrupulous landlords and bankers, Bealsville endured.
"Also, what you saw in a lot of all-black towns was a great migration from the South to the North in search of better lives, and this greatly affected the fabric of black communities," said Cheryl Rodriguez, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida. "There are a number of factors that influence people to leave and it's not always by choice. Sometimes people leave out of necessity."
Recognizing the community's place in history, Bealsville Inc., worked to designate the Glover School, built in the 1930s, a historical landmark and obtained grants in 2005 and 2007 to renovate the school.
Every two years, the community holds a reunion for descendants of the original 12. At last year's reunion, Rosalyn Wright Davis suggested the county rename a street for Andrew Williams, a descendant who platted most of Bealsville's roads.
Higginbotham, who attended the reunion, suggested a historical marker as a quicker, less bureaucratic option. Bealsville Inc., working with county's historical advisory council set out to draft the plaque's language.
Davis who attended the unveiling with her mother, Audrey Wright, said she was thrilled at the outcome.
"You can't turn back the clock," she said. "All you can do is move forward and figure out ways to let our history be known."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.