By Jordan Greer
With Frenchtown development becoming one of the spotlight issues in the city of Tallahassee’s future economic redevelopment plans, a look at the social and economic context for this marginalized area of the city might be useful.
On July 4th 1825, the federal government granted $200,000 worth of northern Florida territory to Marquis De Lafayette, a wealthy French military officer and veteran of the American revolutionary war. He decided to establish a town in which slavery was outlawed. This attracted many French and and free black settlers to the area, which was named Frenchtown. Some dispute exists over whether the name comes from its French residents or from the black population’s connections to the abolitionist town of Frenchtown, New Jersey, which served as a temporary haven for free black persons prior to the U.S. Civil War.
From the 1920’s into the early 1970’s, despite sustained segregation and economic oppression under Jim Crow, Frenchtown went through a period of considerable economic growth. In 1929, Lincoln High School completed its fourth reconstruction, cementing the school as a foundation of employment and education for the neighborhood. Frenchtown was made up of mostly high school and college-educated black professionals. The community grew to be a self-sustaining and thriving economy with local grocery stores, drug stores, and other small businesses.
The national civil rights movements of the time inspired community members and leaders in Tallahassee to partake in political activism. Organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to spring up in the area. This activism was accompanied by the increasing mobilization of local churches. With the help of these organizations, Tallahassee saw several successful civil rights protests throughout the ’50s and ’60s.
The end of segregation in Tallahassee, as in other cities across the nation, led to unintended consequences for some minority neighborhoods, including Frenchtown. Unfortunately, at the end of Jim Crow-era policies of segregation, removal of the neighborhood’s institutions such as local hospitals and schools in favor of shifting funding to resources outside the neighborhood halted and eventually reversed Frenchtown’s growth.
In an interview for this article, Patrick Mason, FSU economics professor, lays out an economic picture of the devolution of Frenchtown:
“Frenchtown used to be a [primarily] middle income neighborhood … But the neighborhood experienced a period of wage stagnation and economic decline from about 74’ to 95’. Local businesses found it hard to compete with national chains in the grocery and the fast-food industries.”
Desegregation of schools led to the closure of Lincoln High-School in 1970 and its subsequent relocation to the southeast area of the city in 1975. Mason remarks, “That was major. That’s removing a key institution from a community.” Many residents left to be closer to the schools where their children were enrolled or where they worked.
This period of economic stagnation led to a migration of black residents away from Tallahassee. According to US Census data, in 1930 the population of Leon County was 65 percent black while today the number stands at a mere 35 percent.
Local businesses fostered economic growth, prosperity, and a sense of community among citizens during the height of Frenchtown’s history. While revitalization is no easy feat, city planners must be cognizant of the community’s vibrant history and the factors that facilitated its growth in order to create a new path forward.