‘Continuing a legacy’: Community founded by freed slaves could be permanently paved over

SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. — It looks like nothing from 10,000 feet in the air. Even the residents will tell you that. A few gridded streets, fields, churches and chicken coops scattered just down the road from The Villages. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know it had a name.

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What Royal lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in history. Once known as Picketville, it was founded by freed slaves in 1865, during the “40 and a mule” era of Reconstruction. Most of the parcels, 40 acres apiece, are still inhabited by descendants of the original owners. Mules are few, though goats and cattle are common.

Driving around, you’re welcomed by people greeting each other by name, calling out from porches or along the paths of the community park. Wildflowers bloom everywhere in shades of pink, white and yellow. Yards are neatly maintained. Noise is kept to near zero. The community is at peace.

Residents fear all of that could be taken away by outsiders and replaced with asphalt.

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Royal has grown with the times, but it has not escaped its consequences. Once set upon miles of fields with only the town of Wildwood in sight, it now has I-75 slicing through its westernmost portion and is bordered by the Florida Turnpike to the south.

See a map of the proposed development below:

Florida’s state government has longed to extend the Turnpike to the northwest, up toward Marion County and the Gulf Coast, to help develop the mostly rural area and provide another hurricane evacuation route. Work on the proposed extension started, maps were passed around and possible routes drawn.

All of the routes follow the same path at the beginning of the extension: curving north from the highway’s current end, then west over I-75.

All of them cutting straight through Royal.

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“We started finding out in January,” Cliff Hughes, the de facto community leader, said. “Two eminent domain lawyers just started sending property owners letters in the mail, concerning about the Turnpike extension may be affecting their property.”

Hughes said around 40 to 50 people received the letters, mostly in the southern third of ihe town. He showed a map the lawyers drew, highlighting a curving swath, one thousand feet wide where the highway and buffer would be.

Beverly Steele’s 100-year-old mother’s house sits within it.

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“How am I going to move my mom, at 100 years old, from her house?” Steele asked. “She worked so hard to build herself [a life] on our family’s 40 acres.”

That’s how many people feel. Families ripped apart, land sold from underneath them. Fears of forcing people to move away from the only place they’ve called home.

FDOT is aware of their plight. After the letters were mailed, a team came to speak to the residents and listen to their fears.

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“The department is committed to refining the current alternative corridors to avoid and minimize impacts to communities and environmentally sensitive features to the extent possible as the project progresses,” a spokeswoman emailed Monday, extolling the benefits of the project. “As such, FDOT will refine the corridors to minimize the impacts to the community of Royal.”

She added that the original maps were drawn with basic data that did not take into account the community’s character nor its application for sites within the proposed corridors to be on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hughes, Steele and others want the highway routed away completely, preferably through a conservation district where the road currently meets I-75. Their other proposal is to have the Turnpike join I-75 at its existing intersection, then split off once it’s safely north of Royal.

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“This is about continuing a legacy, continuing what our forefathers and foremothers worked so hard to gain,” Steele said, adding that she understood FDOT’s position and didn’t believe her neighborhood was being targeted.

Whether their wishes will come to fruition is anyone’s guess, but confidence is growing.

“We’re in a victory race,” Steele said. “We’re going to let God fight it for us.”


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