A New Look at Harriet Beecher Stowe and Other Abolitionists in Florida

Beecher Stowe Articles

By James Cusick, Rachel Laue, and John T. Foster – 

When did people first begin to regard Florida as a winter sanctuary and a place to relocate and set up a homestead? After decades of giving credit for this trend to the railroad barons of the 1880s, scholars are now pointing to abolitionists from the Reconstruction era as the people who first induced emigrants from the North and Midwest to visit and settle in Florida. 

John T. Foster, Jr. and Sarah Whitmer Foster, professors of anthropology at Florida A&M University, point especially to Harriet Beecher Stowe as someone who shaped northern perceptions of Florida. Already internationally famous as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe started to pen vignettes about Florida in 1867, describing life at her winter home on the St. Johns River.  Her residence soon became popular with local sightseers and even a subject for postcards and souvenir stereocards. In 1873 she published a memoir on the state, Palmetto-Leaves, which circulated to a national audience.

Intrigued by the influence Stowe exerted over fellow northerners, the Fosters decided to unearth all of her writings on Florida, amounting to some fifty-seven essays and articles published between 1867 and 1881. These became the topic for two of their books, Beechers, Stowes, and Yankee Strangers (UFP, 2nd Printing, 1999) and Calling Yankees to Florida (FHS Press, 2nd Edition, 2019).  At the same time, they delved into the lives of some of Stowe’s contemporaries, discovering a whole cadre of northern reformers who shared her passion for Florida and who also resided in the Jacksonville area.  This group, most raised with abolitionist sympathies, included Stowe’s brother Charles Beecher, along with abolitionist minister John Sanford Swaim, and Florida’s first Republican governor Harrison Reed and his wife Chloe Merrick Reed.  They took an active interest in Florida, and in the direction it was taking after the Civil War. 

J.S. Swaim pocket diary

Chloe Merrick Reed, for example, subject of a 1993 Florida Historical Quarterly article by the Fosters, was a teacher at Fernandina’s school for black children  and went on to champion public education in Florida. John Sanford Swaim, also a subject of the Fosters’ research, began disseminating articles about Florida to northern newspapers even before Stowe did.  He arrived in Jacksonville in 1864 and subsequently published eleven articles about the state. Like several other reformers of his day, Swaim hoped that an influx of northerners into the South would promote stronger efforts at Reconstruction and strengthen support for African American suffrage.  In his ministry in Jacksonville, he focused primarily on African American communities, starting two churches, including Ebenezer United Methodist Church, known in the nineteenth century as Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church. He also worked to increase educational opportunities for African Americans, organizing the Cookman Institute, the state’s first high school for people of color.

All of the Fosters’ work on Swaim, along with his 1866 diary (shown in image) and their transcription of it, is now available at the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, as a donation from John Foster.

Foster wants the work of these early reformers to be particularly well-known in 2o23, which marks the 150th anniversary of the publications of Palmetto-Leaves.  In a recent article in the Tallahassee Democrat (December 18, 2022),  journalist James Call spoke with Foster, noting that in 1866, Republicans were embracing what would now be regarded as “woke” values. 

“Long before DeSantis,” writes Call, “‘Free Florida’ was championed by abolitionists. A group of Republican activists intent on battling the idea of “systemic racism” and creating a “Free Florida” plotted to control state government and steer policies to benefit development and business while aggressively marketing the state of Florida to the rest of the country. The year was 1866. And how John Foster tells the story, the conspirators were abolitionists who looked to Florida to make a genuine effort to dismantle racist policies and make democracy real for African Americans, forbearers of today’s social justice activists. In that context, “They were woke,” said Foster about the abolitionists. “They were woke and their wokeness in Florida was nearly erased from history by Jim Crow.”

Foster spoke at length about Stowe and others, and their ambitions for Florida, in discussion with writer Craig Pittman and radio host Chadd Scott in Welcome to Florida, Episode 137.

H.B. Philips
Henry Bethune Philips as a young man

Along with the donation of the Swaim diary, Foster has also given the library a small but important collection of papers and photographs related to the Jacksonville family of Henry Bethune Philips, a prominent Duval County judge and an advocate for the Florida Good Roads Movement.  Philips was born in 1857 on what is now called the Red Bank Plantation House in Duval County. His father Albert was a prominent planter who migrated from Georgia in the early nineteenth century. Philips attended Emory College in 1877-78 and later studied law at Vanderbilt University in 1880. Shortly after that, Philips met and married Stella Tuttle, from Cherry Valley, Ohio. He then returned to Jacksonville where he split his time between his law practice and the family plantation for the next two decades. During this time, he and Stella had four children: Charlotte, Matthew, and twins Henry and Harold. After Stella’s death in 1902, Philips remarried in 1904 to Catherine Elizabeth Smith and had three more children: Margaret, Mary, and E. Bethune.

Stella Philips
Stella Tuttle Philips, possibly taken at her graduation from Oberlin College.

In 1891, Philips was appointed Judge of the Criminal Court of Duval County and also continued his law practice in other courts. Ten years later he was promoted to Judge of the Duval County Court and remained so for the next 20 years, until his retirement in 1921. For decades, Philips endorsed the Florida Good Roads Movement. In 1915, Philips drafted the legislation that created the State Road Department. In 1921, Philips was appointed to the State Road Board where he was elected as its chairman. Philips Highway, between St. Augustine and Jacksonville, is named for him, as is the Jacksonville Philips Center.

The Philips materials include one of the judge’s letter books, a short memoir by daughter Charlotte Philips Terrill, remembrances on the life of Stella Tuttle Philips, and articles about the house at Red Banks.  The 76 photographs depict Henry and Stella at different stages in life, their children Charlotte, Matthew, Henry, and Harold, their grandchildren, and other kin.

To see a description and list of contents in the John T. Foster, Jr., and Sarah Whitmer Foster Collection, visit the online finding aid.

Guide to the Collection

About the Fosters

The Fosters
Sarah Whitmer and John T. Foster

John Foster is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. He is the author of At the Dawn of Tourism in Florida (FHS Press, 2019) and of three monographs with his wife, Sarah Whitmer Foster: Beechers, Stowes, and Yankee Strangers (UFP, 2nd Printing, 1999); Contentment and the Pursuit of Ambition (Rose Digital Publishing, 2011); and Calling Yankees to Florida (FHS Press, 2nd Edition, 2019). The pair also served as editors for two additional books. John Foster has published extensively in the Florida Historical Quarterly as well as several other prestigious scholarly journals. His work includes topics on Reconstruction-era Florida, Africa, African Americans, and instructional design. He is the leading expert on the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher family in Florida.

Sarah Whitmer Foster was Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Florida A&M University. Her work focused on Reconstruction Florida, the Beecher family, and the role of women in the founding of modern Florida. Among her co-authored works with John Foster, Sarah was the most proud of a biographical article about Florida first lady, Chloe Merrick Reed.. She was an active member of the National Council of Churches and, along with her husband, represented the Church World Service in Southern Africa during apartheid. It was in Botswana that she saw firsthand where South African soldiers had murdered her neighbors. Sarah passed away in 2015.