Palm Beach: Black & White

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Palm Beach, 1900. The Styx, pictured above, was an established Black settlement located one block north of Main Street extending from the lakefront east to the ocean. Tony’s Cigar Store and other storefronts lined a central path that became known as Palm Beach Avenue, later renamed North County Road. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

By 1900, Palm Beach’s bespoke hotels attained standing as the world’s greatest resort while The Beach Club’s baccarat tables and dice games fashioned it the “Monte Carlo of America.” In stark contrast, the Styx, located within an approximate 12-acre white-owned parcel in earshot of The Breakers and the Royal Poinciana Hotel, housed an enclave of cottages and shops rented to hundreds of Black resort workers and their families from the mid-1890s until around 1910.

As turn-of-the-century Palm Beach evolved into a Millionaires Playground, Black families were evicted from the Styx and moved across the lake to West Palm Beach. Although Blacks and white people lived close to each other for more than a decade, they were divided by irreconcilable social and economic gaps. The era’s segregation laws and restrictions prevented Blacks from realizing the legitimacy of their lives, their voices unheard and ignored, making for a skewed episodic historical narrative.

And yet, as dolled-up as Palm Beach was with Gilded Age frills, the remote island’s pursuits offered departures from putting greens, tea dances, and countless wardrobe changes. Lassoing ten-foot alligators, taking ostrich rides, wagering bets on cakewalks, and shark fishing were equally popular pastimes. Alligator Joe was as much a Palm Beach icon as a Vanderbilt. Add to this disparate appeal, the attraction of the Styx.

In 1900, The Weekly Lake Worth News described The Styx as, “One of the points of interest at Palm Beach, and one that no one should miss, is the settlement north of the Inn. The settlement begins as soon as one is clear of the links and covers a considerable area. Those who have seen the celebrated Grants Town, on the island of New Providence, and the homes of Jamaicans, say that while both are picturesque, neither is of more interest to the visitor than this village on Palm Beach.”

Palm Beach was “jigsaw puzzle mad” during the 1900 season. Even so, visitors could also engage with Florida panthers at the Museum of Natural History.
Guests weary of bathing and boating rode wheelchairs down the Jungle Trail to the Florida Ostrich Farm.
Styx, c. 1900. The roof sign on the left reads Boston House. “The lover of the old and the picturesque will find material here for hours of observation, and even the most casual observer cannot fail to be interested. There is no order as to the placing of the houses, which are tucked away in all sorts of retired little nooks, sometimes in pairs, again in threes or fours, and not infrequently standing alone and completely hidden from their neighbors by the thick growth of small trees and bushes.” The Weekly Lake Worth News, 1900.
Thomas and Priscilla Peppers and their family, pictured above, were Styx pioneers, featured in Everee Jimerson Clarke’s book Pleasant City – West Palm Beach, part of Arcadia Publishing’s Black America Series. Clarke’s book maps the prolonged exodus of Blacks from the Styx, stating the community “had begun moving across the lake once West Palm Beach was incorporated in 1894.” According to Clarke, their numbers increased after 1905 when the Pleasant City subdivision was established as an exclusive Black quarter in West Palm Beach.

Shifting sands

At first, the Styx was appreciated as a tourist attraction, adding a Caribbean touch of Bahamian and Jamaican atmosphere to its resort image. The Royal Poinciana and The Breakers set up baseball teams with colored players. The off-duty porters and waiters played to full grandstands twice a week on a diamond built at the north end of the golf course between the two hotels located one block south of the Styx. Moonlight Monday-night Cakewalks performed by daytime maids and wheelchair drivers to ragtime rhythms were known to attract 1,000 spectators in the Cocoanut Grove. “The most characteristic and picturesque of Palm Beach functions,” declared The New York Times in February 1903, “though it is difficult to describe the odd charm of this open-air event.”

Regrettably, a century later, rather than detailed narratives about the actual lives of those who lived there. the Styx’s historical chronicle often dwells on either retelling or dispelling myths. Who owned the Boston House?  What happened to Tony’s Cigar shop? Instead, no matter how many times the story is disproved of a deliberate fire set to destroy the settlement on the same night residents were given free tickets to a circus, some form of the story is revived. Just as circumstances are regularly obscured regarding the demolition of the town’s legendary mansions, making their demise the greater part of their legacy, the Styx’s disappearance became its history, as that final chapter accounts for most of the available public records.

By published accounts, this 1903 fire did not appear to affect the Styx. New York Tribune, June 10, 1903.
Palm Beach 1900. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

After all, the Palm Beach Daily News was purposed to promote the pursuit of leisure, a hotel guest’s golf scores and fishing triumphs, menus and table settings, not detail the realities of individuals who made resort life possible. The history of Black men who pedaled wheelchairs or delivered steamer trunks and Black women who baked cakes or made beds, depends on family scrapbooks and letters, diaries, oral history accounts, and fragmentary newspaper mentions. Because Palm Beach was part of Dade County until 1911, The Daily Miami Metropolis regularly featured two weekly columns, “Colored Column” and “The Colored People – Here and Elsewhere.” Both features mentioned the comings and goings of Black people and their churches on Palm Beach. Interestingly, these columns, rather than mention the Styx, most often referenced Blacks as living on Palm Beach or the East Side, as Palm Beach was once called.

In framing my narrative for the Styx’s history, I relied on The Daily Miami Metropolis columns, Weekly Lake Worth News and Tropical Sun reports, the Palm Beach Post archive, and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s abridged history of the Styx on their website, as well as Everee Clark’s book. Since Palm Beach’s inception as a resort, every newspaper reported on the island’s seasonal activities, some in meticulous detail. I utilized as sources the New York Sun and New York Herald-Tribune, Washington’s Evening Star, and the Pittsburgh Gazette.

The Daily Palm Beach News, a seasonal paper first owned by Henry Flagler, was “devoted to society happenings and events of interest at the Palm Beach hotels and Lake Worth cottages.”

The Daily Miami Metropolis newspaper regularly featured “Colored Column” and “The Colored People: Here and Elsewhere,” detailing the interaction and relationships between the Black communities at Palm Beach and Miami.

Palm Beach 1900

During the summer of 1899, the lakefront Royal Poinciana Hotel expanded, making it the largest wooden hotel in the world,while 100 rooms were added to the Palm Beach Inn. With Flagler’s two hotels accommodating 1,500 guest rooms, in January 1900 the Palm Beach Inn was rechristened The Breakers. The oceanfront hotel’s new 185 by 60-foot dining room was lit by 576 incandescent lights, of such incomparable grandeur that The Breakers hosted the season’s social highpoint, the Washington Birthday Ball.

At the beginning of that season, guests returned to find five oceanfront cottages built to the north of the hotel, already reserved for lengthy stays by former US Attorney General Wayne McVeagh, actor Joseph Jefferson, Boston’s Mrs. William Woods, Pittsburgh Gazette publisher E. M. O’Neil, and Carnegie Steel’s Henry Phipps.  After a round of golf on the redesigned 18-hole golf course, guests fished for “the big one” from the hotel’s 1,600-foot pier. Or, they might pack a bag and walk to the end of the pier where they boarded a steamer headed to Nassau or Havana. By 1910, both hotels were enlarged again, the Royal Poinciana housing 1,300 rooms and The Breakers increased to 700 rooms and suites.

The train once brought guests to the front door of The Breakers, first opened as the Palm Beach Inn in December 1894 on the oceanfront side of the golf course. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The Palm Beach Inn, 1898-1899. A rare view of the original Palm Beach Inn. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

“A decided sensation …” In March 1900, Bradley’s Beach Club’s guests took home the ultimate Palm Beach souvenir, a front-row seat for the first raid to shut down Bradley’s gambling operation, as reported by The Florida Star newspaper.
Located north of the Styx, the Palm Beach Gun Club was founded by members of the New York Gun Club.
A brigade of Palm Beach’s legendary wheelchair drivers. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

The Styx

The Styx began as a Flagler-era “tent city” during the mid-1890s that grew into a well-defined district for Black families, first regarded as compatible with the resort’s far-flung remote image. The May 1903 articles are believed the earliest reports describing the Styx as a public health concern. These stories stated Blacks were ordered to “observe sanitary laws and keep their premises clean and tidy or pay a $10.00 fine.” At the time, the Styx consisted of rented plots with Black tenants owned by several prominent white Palm Beach pioneers, including E.M. Brelsford, Enoch Root, and James Monroe Munyon, a manufacturer of homeopathic patent medicines.

The Tropical Sun reported on efforts to improve conditions, as East Side property owners solicited assistance from the local Board of Trade. As Henry Flagler was settling into Whitehall, his palatial 75-room, 100,000 square-foot, Carrere & Hastings-designed, lakefront, Palm Beach mansion, he, and others, also promised “… to rend what aid they could.” But when no action was taken, Elisha “Cap” Dimick, chair of the East Side property owners group, believed, “if the health officer was to insist property owners put in sewers, it would have to be done, or else the buildings would have to be removed.”

Negro Baptist Church, 1893. Palm Beach. “Dan Logan is a busy man, always has time to do a favor. He is a Baptist and they have a church made of palmetto boughs laid over a slight frame.” Among the Palms: Life at Palm Beach, by Victoria (Mrs. Enoch) Root, Chicago Inter-Ocean, April 10, 1893, page 7. Founded in 1893 at the Styx, the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, once known as the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, is now The Tabernacle Church located in West Palm Beach. Among the church’s original members were: Georgia Stevens, Bettie Holden, Millie Walker, Bessie Ellis, Frances Stevens, Sarah McDaniel, Chrissie Griffin, Bettie Carlton, Cornelia Bright, Bettie Matterson, Joe Williams, John Stevens, Gus Holmes, Dan Logan, Philip McDaniel, Noah Hall, George Mickens, and Joe Box.  The Payne Chapel – African Methodist Episcopal Church, first known as Bethel, was also established in 1893 at the Styx.
The Styx at Palm Beach. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County

When a year passed and there was no progress, public health concerns grew. Enoch Root voiced, “… conditions were such as to cause all decent people to shudder houses of ill-fame, blind tigers, and other dens of iniquity.” (Certainly, Root was not referring to Bradley’s Beach Club or the town’s speakeasies.) Property owners agreed “to do what was best,” which decoded as Styx tenants would be evicted, their dwellings razed, and moved to West Palm Beach. From his private island called Dreamland, James Munyon notified county authorities to order a sheriff’s deputy to serve his 150 tenants with a 30-day notice to remove their dwellings. Guy Metcalf, who happened to own the Tropical Sun newspaper until 1905 when he sold it to Henry Flagler’s Model Land Company, gave tenants a 30-day notice to vacate.

When the 1904 season ended, Dr. Henry C. Hood, chairman of Palm Beach’s sanitation committee, told The Weekly Lake Worth News,… while some of the tenants had gone elsewhere and some of the dwellings had disappeared, the razing process was by no means complete and the menace to public health continued.” Continuing the incongruous reports characterizing the Styx’s drawn-out impasse, Enoch Root stated, “… the better class, the thrifty ones, had gone away and only the riff-raff remained.”  James Munyon expressed,Prompt rent payers would not be disturbed but would be OK’d for continued residence at this time …”  Six years passed with few mentions of the Styx.

The Styx. Resler Studio photograph courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

The Styx makeover

Then, in March 1910, Beach Club owners J. R. “Jack” and Edward R. “Colonel” Bradley bought the largest remaining part of the Styx, paying $55,000 to James Munyon for a 264-foot wide ocean-to-lake parcel adjoining the north side of their Main Street holdings. At that time, the Styx was described as, “… the famous Negro settlement which has dance halls and has been the scene of cock fights, prize fights, and other undesirable affairs.” The plan for the summer of 1910, the Tropical Sun reported, was to remove the existing structures, fill in the five-acres of marsh sections, remove the barn-like buildings along the lake, as well as build a road along the lakefront where both brothers planned to build their homes on the northside of the existing Beach Club. Further, the Bradleys would do away with “the eyesore of small unsightly shops … where the afternoon promenade of the wheelchair contingent congregated.”  By December, the Bradleys had spent more than $35,000, dredging 60,000 yards of soil creating an acre of new lakeside ground and filling-in where Styx buildings once stood.

Floral Park subdivision plat, 1912.

The Bradley brothers’ Beach Club had opened in 1899. Above, along the lakefront, John Bradley house, the E. R. Bradley house next to the Beach Club and the Palm Beach Train Station across from the Beach Club. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
In 1911 Town of Palm Beach alderman unanimously passed Ordinance No. 2, “Alderman John W. Doe introduced an ordinance for the prevention and suppression of Negro lodging houses, restaurants, and dance halls, within the limits of the Town of Palm Beach. Ordinance to be known as Ordinance No. 2.”
1928. Main Street intersection with North Palm Beach Avenue, later known as County Road. Author J. Wadsworth Travers wrote about the Styx in the 1928 edition of History of Beautiful Palm Beach, “… many of the residents moved to West Palm Beach in 1894, it was 1912 before the last vestige of the Styx passed into history.” Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The Styx Café & Bar opened in 1936. After Prohibition was repealed, Palm Beach welcomed 24-hour bars, dusk-to-dawn nightclubs, and package stores.
Chez Jean-Pierre restaurant is located at the site of the Styx Cafe.
North County Road, 2020. View north from Sunset Avenue toward Sunrise Avenue. To the left, Tony’s Cigars and Refreshments would possibly have been located along this row of buildings. Right, a parking lot for the Paramount Building was the site for the legendary Patio night club, once the home of E. Clarence Jones named Villa Yalta.
North County Road at Sunrise Avenue, looking south toward the Breakers. 2020.
The Styx, c. 1900. Sunset Avenue, Palm Beach The Styx vanished without a trace. The lost world of the Black community at Palm Beach now exists in the memories and photographs of family members, some whose ancestors helped build Palm Beach, several church histories that reorganized in West Palm Beach, and the archives at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach, 1900.

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