Just 110 miles off the southern coast of Florida lie the Bahamas. The largest group of Bahamian Americans lives in Florida, where they have deep historical roots. And while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis continues his hopeless run for the Republican presidential nomination, he is enraging residents of his home state.
DeSantis’ repeated hypothetical statements about the time it would take to “flatten the Bahamas” in the event of an armed conflict have alarmed the Bahamian government to the point that the U.S. State Department has stepped in, attempting to assure the people of the Bahamas that our cordial relationship with them remains unchanged. And Florida state Sen. Shevrin “Shev” Jones, who is of Bahamian ancestry, was quick to push back against DeSantis, demanding of DeSantis, “leave the Bahamas out of your rhetoric!”
For this first “Caribbean Matters” of 2024, it seems like a good time to explore the history of the Bahamas and the contributions of Bahamian Americans to U.S. history.
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Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.
Before diving into that rich history, here’s that scathing response from Jones to DeSantis:
This isn’t the first time DeSantis has offended Caribbean American Floridians. Sadly, it won’t be the last before he is (temporarily) term-limited in 2026.
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When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019, Jones immediately spoke out, writing for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
My family in the Bahamas — including cousins, uncles, and aunts who call Pine Wood, Nassau, and Freeport home — is grappling with extensive flooding and property damage following Hurricane Dorian, but are thankfully all safe and accounted for after surviving the worst storm in the island nation’s history.
Dorian, a Category 5 storm, made landfall in the Bahamas with 185 mph winds and gusts of up to 220 mph, making it the strongest landfalling Atlantic hurricane on record. It then stalled over the northwest Bahamas for roughly 48 hours, causing absolute devastation on Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands, home to 70,000 people. The monster storm destroyed and damaged tens of thousands of homes, crippled hospitals and shelters, leveled communities, and killed at least 20 people.It’s not an exaggeration to describe Dorian’s destruction as apocalyptic for my family’s country.
Thoughts and prayers won’t be enough in the aftermath of such a massive storm. Our state and nation must aid in this developing humanitarian crisis. I’ve urged the Trump administration to waive U.S. visa requirements for Bahamians seeking refuge post-Dorian.
This is not about political partisanship. It is a moral failing to stand idly by while thousands of human beings are left to languish without drinking water, food or shelter. South Florida is home to many Caribbean immigrants — Bahamians, Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans — who make our communities stronger. We must step up because this is our family.
We talk a lot here about the devastation Hurricane Maria inflicted upon Puerto Rico, but less so about Dorian’s impact. Here’s a news clip from that time with Jones.
The Bahamas are our closest Caribbean neighbor, but the island nation is currently part of the British commonwealth. It’s also a full member of CARICOM.
Bahamas.com details the island’s early history.
300 to 400 ADLucayan/Christopher Columbus
As early as 300 to 400 AD, people who came from what is now Cuba (there was no country named Cuba at that time) lived on The Islands Of The Bahamas and relied on the ocean for food. From around 900-1500 AD the Lucayan people settled here. They enjoyed a peaceful way of life and had developed viable political, social and religious systems.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus made landfall in the New World on the island of San Salvador. Inspired by the surrounding shallow sea, he described them as islands of the “baja mar” (shallow sea), which has become The Islands Of The Bahamas. When he arrived, there were about 40,000 Lucayans. Their peaceful nature made the Lucayans easy targets for enslavement however. Within 25 years, all of the Lucayans were wiped out due to the diseases, hardships and slavery endured.
1649 First Settlement
English Puritans known as “Eleutheran Adventurers” arrived here in 1649 in search of religious freedom. Instead, they found food shortages. Captain William Sayle sailed to the American colonies for help and received supplies from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Upon his return, the settlers thanked them by shipping them brasileto wood. The proceeds helped purchase land for what later become Harvard University.
Frommers picks up the story, documenting early links between U.S. loyalists and the Bahamas.
Loyalists, Blockade-Runners & Bootleggers
After the American Revolution, several thousand Loyalists from the former colonies emigrated to The Bahamas. Some of these, especially southerners, brought their black slaves with them and tried their luck at planting sea-island cotton in the Out Islands, as the islands other than New Providence were called. Growing cotton was not a success, as the plants fell prey to the chenille bug, but by then, the former Deep South planters had learned to fish, grow vegetables, and provide for their families and servants in other ways.
The first white settlers of The Bahamas had also brought slaves with them, but with the United Kingdom Emancipation Act of 1834, the slaves were freed and the government compensated the former owners for their “property loss.” It was a fairly peaceful transition, though it was many years before any real equality was seen.
An interesting part of history connecting the U.S. and the Bahamas: The Bahamas became a refuge for escaped enslaved people from parts of the South along a route that became known as “The Saltwater Railroad.”
Nicole Campbell wrote about this history for Black Past.
The “Saltwater Railroad” refers to the coastal waterway followed by many enslaved people escaping from the Southern slave states into the British-controlled Bahamas. The saltwater railroad served a similar function as the Underground Railroad, a land pathway, that allowed enslaved people to flee to northern states and ultimately to Canada.
Movement to the Bahamas began as early as 1821. In 1818, future President Andrew Jackson, a supporter of slavery, invaded Spanish Florida which had previously served as a slave refuge. The official American takeover of Florida in the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty prompted the flight of hundreds of blacks into the British-held Bahamas, beginning the four decades-long movement.
In the early 1800s, enslaved people from the deep South were limited in their options for escape: the northern states and British Canada, where slavery was either restricted or abolished by the 1820s, were thousands of miles away, making the Bahamas a more viable option.
By the 1830s, an estimated 6,000 enslaved people had escaped to the islands. Notably, in 1841, a revolt on the Creole, a ship transporting slaves from Virginia to Louisiana, led to the liberation of over 100 people who sailed the ship to Nassau, Bahamas. Their escape inspired many other escapes, especially from Florida Territory.
Which brings us back to Florida and its long history with the Bahamian diaspora.
For a deep dive into the migration of Bahamians to Florida, historian Melanie Shell-Weiss is a must read. As she wrote for Florida Historical Quarterly in 2005:
Through the 1920s, Miami was home to a greater percentage of foreign-born black persons than any other city in the United States. Most of these migrants hailed from the Bahamas. Bahamian men working as carpenters and common laborers cleared the city’s roads and built many of its homes and hotels between 1896 and 1920. Bahamian women staffed the city’s growing number of hotels and service industries. Patterns of movement between Florida and the Bahamas remained relatively fluid. Simultaneously, in the streets churches, on the job, and in the restaurants of Miami, West Indians and native-born African Americans began to forge a shared sense of identity as black Americans, over this early part of the twentieth century.2 The legacy of these transnational ties shaped traditions of protest and political activity for generations to follow.
Between 1896 and 1924, more Bahamians traveled to South Florida seeking work than to any other location, with the number of migrants who chose Miami as their first destination only accelerating after its port opened in 1905. By 1910, more than 35 percent of Miami’s residents were African-American; of those, roughly one-third was from the Bahamas or elsewhere in the West Indies. Some reports estimated that as many as two to three thousand migrants arrived in the city each year through the late 1900s and early 1910s. Residents of Miami compared these waves of migrants to “waves rushing upon the shore.” Small schooners, “so crowded with people that there was barely standing room on their decks,” arrived with fifty or sixty people at one time. Through the 1910s, black West Indians comprised nearly one-quarter of the city’s population, making it home to the largest percentage of black immigrants than any other city in the United States.
Once in Miami, Bahamians played a central role in shaping the city. As lines of segregation hardened over the early twentieth century, most Bahamians had little choice but to settle in the city’s designated “colored districts.” The largest of these was “Central Negro District,” known locally as Overtown and located in the heart of Miami’s downtown. By one historian’s estimation, Overtown made up roughly 15 percent of Miami’s original area and, through the 1920s, was home to more than 25 percent of the city’s population, making it among the city’s most crowded areas.’ Others settled in Coconut Grove, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the area, located just to the south of central Miami on the opposite side of the Miami River. Coconut Grove had the highest concentration of Bahamians, dating back to the 1880s. While some Bahamians also chose to live in Lemon City, the vast majority settled in Coconut Grove or Overtown through the 1920s.
2. An important note on terminology. Unless otherwise specified, the term “African-American” is used to refer to native-born black Americans. “Bahamian” refers to first- and secondgeneration Bahamian migrants.
You may be surprised to find out how many notable Black people of Bahamian ancestry there are in our history, past and present. The most well-known historical figures were James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson.
Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas, and James Johnson. His maternal great-grandmother, Hester Argo, had escaped from Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) during the revolutionary upheaval in 1802, along with her three young children, including James’ grandfather Stephen Dillet (1797–1880).) James’ brother was John Rosamond Johnson, who became a composer.
Together, the brothers wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which became known as “The Negro National Anthem” and is now called “The Black National Anthem.”
This video from The Grio tells the story of the Johnson brothers’ iconic song.
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In the world of the theater and film, actor Sidney Poitier was Bahamian, though his birth in the States was unintended.
Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He arrived two and a half months prematurely while his Bahamian parents were on vacation in Miami. As soon as he was strong enough, Poitier left the United States with his parents for the Bahamas. There, Poitier spent his early years on his father’s tomato farm on Cat Island. After the farm failed, the family moved to Nassau, when Poitier was around the age of 10.
In Nassau, Poitier seemed to have a knack for getting himself into trouble. As a result, his father decided to send the teenager to the United States for his own good and Poitier went to live with one of his brothers in Miami. At age 16, Poitier left the South for New York City, where he worked menial jobs to support himself, until he found his life’s passion.
Well before Poitier, one of the most famous vaudeville stars was Bahamian American actor Bert Williams.
Egbert Austin Williams was born in Nassau, in the Bahamas, on November 12, 1874. His background was mixed: his mother was from Antigua, and among his ancestors on his father’s side was a Danish diplomat. When Williams was born, his father was working as a waiter at Nassau’s Royal Victoria Hotel. The family thought of immigrating to the United States and made a temporary trip to New York when Williams was two, but then returned to the Bahamas, Williams’s home until he was 11. His natural accent was lightly Caribbean, and the stylized black dialect of the American minstrel show, he was quoted as saying by Charters, “to me was just as much a foreign dialect as that of the Italian.”
In 1885 the Williams family came to the United States for good, following a Bahamian migration to Florida and then moving on to southern California and its growing fruit farms. Williams attended Riverside Boys High School, treating classes with indifference but singing enthusiastically in the choir. Once, when he was called on to recite from a book the class had been reading, he entertained his classmates with jokes he had been absorbing from a second book concealed on his lap. “I was always doing something funny, and my teachers didn’t know what to do with me,” he recalled in an interview quoted by Eric Ledell Smith in Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian. “They couldn’t spank me for being funny, and I wasn’t a mischievous boy.”
Actress Esther Rolle’s parents were immigrants from the Bahamas.
Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Florida, to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle (1883–1953), a farmer, and Elizabeth Iris Rolle (née Dames; 1893–1981). Her parents were both born and raised in Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas and moved to Florida some time after their marriage. She was the tenth of 18 children (children who included siblings and fellow actresses Estelle Evans and Rosanna Carter). Rolle graduated from Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Florida. She initially studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, but she moved to New York City. While in New York, she attended Hunter College. Rolle transferred to The New School and, finally, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.” For many years, Rolle worked in a traditional day job in New York City’s garment district.
Actor Calvin Lockhart was born in the Bahamas, and ultimately died there.
Moving onto politics, we have Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, whose maternal grandparents were Bahamian. Wilson proudly claims her Bahamian ancestry.
Find even more famous folks with Bahamian roots here.
Here’s hoping Ron DeKlantis will STFU and keep the Bahamas’ name out of his mouth. (I won’t hold my breath.)
In the meantime, join me in the comments for more on the Bahamas, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.