Remembering Jonestown: Orlando’s first African American community

ORLANDO, Fla. — Relatives of the original settlers of Jonestown say the historically Black community could have become profitable, if only their land wasn’t taken.

The community was founded in 1880 near Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando comprised mostly of small houses, known as shacks.

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Washington Shores resident Macene Isom said the land that is now a cemetery was once known as Jonestown.

“People need to know the history first about Jonestown and what happened,” she said.

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Formerly enslaved people founded the community, Orlando’s first African American neighborhood, around 1880 when Sam Jones and his wife Penny settled along the banks of Fern Creek about a mile east of Orlando’s downtown.

There were more than 70 houses, one school, six commercial establishments, and two churches.

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Ezzie Thomas grew up in Paramore just a couple miles away. He said one of those churches provided comfort for him and his young friends.

“They had high stairs, a lot of stairs leading to the sanctuary and we would use that for sleeping and getting ourselves back together to get ready for the trek back to Orlando,” Thomas said.

And he remembers the rain.

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“Jonestown was a low lying neighborhood,” he said. “Whenever it would, rain hurricane came through it was washed out.”

But he said there was some delight in those dreadful storms.

“No drainage so the water would accumulate half the length of the house and we’d go there hoping the water was clear enough for us to swim,” he said.

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According to historians, when a house on South Street occupied by an African American family burned in 1939, work began on rebuilding it but a delegation of white residents protested to city officials citing the poor condition of neighboring structures.

The city withdrew the building permit, and two weeks later the city announced a plan for the complete removal of Jonestown forcing residents to move into places like nearby Parramore.

“My family did not deserve to see what we considered our legacy taken from us,” said Vicki Jones Brooks, the great granddaughter of Sam and Penny Jones.

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“I come from a strong line and a heritage of people who had a lot of foresight and were determined and let nothing stand in their way. They were always wanting to improve themselves,” she said.

And what bothers her today is that there are no signs of what used to be called Jonestown.

“Not talking about reparations, just recognition that this land was originally owned by a proud determined strong Black family,” she said.

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Karen Parks

Karen Parks, WFTV.com

Karen Parks is a reporter at WFTV.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.