Woman returns to her roots and attempts to preserve forgotten history

Beverly Steele shows historic farm implements donated to the center.
Beverly Steele shows historic farm implements donated to the center.

Everybody in The Villages is from somewhere else, but surrounding communities have many longtime residents.

A few miles northwest of Wildwood, for example, is the community of Royal, where many people still live on the same land their ancestors received when they were freed as slaves after the Civil War.

The federal government proclaimed at that time that freed slaves would receive 40 acres and an old Army mule to begin their new lives. This order later was rescinded, but unlike many other former slaves, Royal residents managed to keep their property.

A model of a 19th Century cracker house used by many Royal ancestors.
A model of a 19th Century cracker house used by many Royal ancestors.

Royal is named for the descendants of African tribal kings and queens who escaped the slave auction block and lived freely in the community before the Civil War. After the war, the area was populated by former slaves of the Green Plantation along the Withlacoochee River.

For nearly a half century, Royal has hosted a homecoming celebration on Father’s Day each year that brings about 6,000 former residents and others to the community. The one-day event began simply with a church service and potluck dinner.

The community’s rich heritage is preserved at a small building along County Highway 235 called the Alonzo A. Young Sr. Enrichment and Historical Center. The renovated building, which used to serve as a school cafeteria, is named after the last elementary and middle school principal.

On the plantation, the slaves planted and harvested cotton, tobacco and sugar cane before the cultivation of oranges came to central Florida. They also gathered pine sap to make turpentine. When they were freed, they grew many of the same crops on their 40 acres.

Beverly Steele, who operates the Young Performing Artists group at the center, attended the elementary school a few steps from the center before it closed when desegregation was implemented in the early 1970s. The school was demolished and a community building now occupies the site.

With desegregation, Steele was able to graduate from Wildwood High School. She earned a degree from Florida A&M University, then began a corporate management career in New York. By age 30, she ran a $20-million department. She later worked in Los Angeles and Chicago, before returning to Royal in the early 1990s.

“God actually put His foot in my back and said, ‘Go home to Royal,’” she said.

When she got home, she became concerned about the lack of knowledge about local history and declining participation of children in the arts. She hadn’t learned much about Royal’s heritage growing up and she became inspired to start Young Performing Artists, a group with affiliates in West Virginia and South Africa that promotes art and music among young people.

Beverly Steele describes a group of 40 paintings that depict the freeing of slaves after the Civil War.
Beverly Steele describes a group of 40 paintings that depict the freeing of slaves after the Civil War.

“Our mission is to identify and address the needs of young visual and performing artists well as provide creative solutions to youth development,” Steele said. “We believe the arts should be a part of the educational development of all children.

During summer vacations and spring breaks from school, children learn about their heritage. They helped build a model of a 19th Century cracker house where their ancestors lived. In a session on gardening, they learned about vegetables grown in Africa and by slaves after they came to America.

On a wall at the center are 40 small paintings done by children and adults that focus on various aspects of the 40-acres-and-a-mule experience. In another room are donated artifacts such as old farm implements, models of historic buildings and a suit and wedding dress

The children also participate in inter-generational workshops where they can ask questions and learn about their heritage from older Royal residents.

Many Royal residents benefit from great longevity. The Rev. Matthew Beard died at age 115 in 1985 and another resident known as Big Mama died at age 110 in 2012. Flossie Sesler, Steele’s aunt and the community’s unofficial historian, is in her mid-80s.

“I think it has something to do with the way they worked,” Steele said

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