Cosmo and Gullah Geechee Northeast Florida

by Tim Gilmore, 8/6/2022

1. A Paradox and a Mystery

A lifelong resident of Cosmo says there’s no such thing as Cosmo. Says another, “There’s plenty of white people in Cosmo now, they just don’t know it.” They moved into new houses they never knew were built in a black community with roots in Sea Island cultures with dialects that sounded more African than African American. Developers knew. And they knew how to get the land.

Cosmo is a paradox and a mystery. Nobody knows how it got its name. It developed shortly after the Civil War as a community of former slaves who built scattered wooden houses and painted them pastel blues and yellows and pinks in the woods just outside Old Fulton Town at St. Johns Bluff, about 10 miles northeast of Original Jacksonville. It connected by old footpaths to other wooded black communities like Lone Star and Chaseville.

Mount Zion United Methodist Church in the former settlement of Lone Star

The Reverend Ethel Deloris Demps spent her whole life in Cosmo. Long before becoming pastor of Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church, Demps attended church and school here, ate of this land and the river. Her father was a fisherman and her family owned 15 acres on either side of what’s now Fort Caroline Road. The land gave her family Chickasaw plums, blueberries and blackberries, oysters and wild turkey. Her address was Route 1, Box 290. When Reverend Demps died in her early 70s in 2017, subdivisions Hunters’ Run and Fort Caroline Oaks had encroached on either side.

Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church in Cosmo

“We were all Gullah and Geechee,” Demps told Cristin Wilson of The Florida Times-Union on January 18, 2015. “All of us came down the St. Johns River.” Her great-grandmother Ella Brown and grandmother Ethel Montaque staked their riverfront property before the Cosmo post office was established in 1888.

The Gullah Geechee people descended from enslaved Africans from specific tribal groups in West Central Africa, likely the Gola (of present-day Angola) and Kizzi, and lived on plantations from coastal North Carolina to Northeast Florida. They developed their own patois, hybrid religious beliefs, folklore and arts. Reverend Demps worked tirelessly to get historic designation for her church and the sign along Fort Caroline Road that says, “Welcome to Cosmo, Florida, a Gullah Geechee Community.”

2. Pastel Houses Scattered in the Woods

Long before the developers, Cosmo was dirt roads in the woods and pastel colored houses scattered amidst the pines, the magnolias and hollies, little woodframe houses painted pastel yellow and blue and pink, the occasional two story frame house, deep porches, a sleeping porch, the occasional jook joint. All the oldest houses are gone now, but a few concrete block houses from the 1960s wear similar hues.

one of the newest remaining houses of Old Cosmo, 1960s

Cosmo has no official boundaries. A 500 page oral history project called “Conversations from Cosmo,” conducted in 2015 by researcher Lyn Corley refers to its east and west boundaries as “the McCormick / Fort Caroline Road split” and “the power lines.” The few remaining residents of Cosmo share a common ancestor, James Bartley, a former slave who left South Carolina after Emancipation.

abandoned now, one of the last woodframe houses built in Old Cosmo, early 1960s

The community seems to have dematerialized in suburban sprawl, but the truth is less happenstance. “Gullah descendants,” Corley writes, “have been forced off or convinced out of title of their valuable land for generations.”

Stories traversed these roads linking one black settlement to another, dark green shadowed in the moonlight, and one claimed Cosmo began when U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order no. 15, issued January 16, 1865, allotted to certain freed slaves and their families “40 acres and a mule.”

That phrase became synonymous with broken promises. It recurs in songs by Tupac Shakur and Kendrick Lamar and as the name of director Spike Lee’s production company. Indeed, “40 acres and a mule” became symbolic of Reconstruction, the federal government’s short-lived attempt to bring the former Confederacy back into the United States and provide emancipated slaves with basic civil rights. But Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow, as surely as Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s field order provisions after Lincoln’s assassination. The South revised the whole history and purpose of the Confederacy and turned U.S. promises into curses.

the logo for Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule

“The deed was given,” Reverend Demps told Lyn Corley, “40 acres and a mule, given to James Bartley, who was my mom’s great-uncle.” Thus the cosmogenesis of Cosmo. “I don’t know if he got the mule,” the pastor laughed, but “he got the land.”

But the promise failed equally across the South’s vast and varied landscapes and did so also here. Cosmo did not result from Sherman’s field order. Cosmo did not begin with that sacred “40 acres and a mule,” but with an 1870s land grant to James Bartley based on the 1855 Florida Act to Provide for and Encourage a Liberal System of Internal Improvements.

detail from James Bartley’s original deed

Ethel Demps’s father, Willie Anderson, was born down the road in Chaseville, a black community developers replaced with a subdivision called Fort Caroline Club Estates in 1960. Though developers supposedly relocated the black Chaseville cemetery, there’s no record of the bodies being reinterred. Reverend Demps’s mother, Alberta Bartley Anderson, was born in Fulton, the closest township to St. Johns Bluff.

subdivision replacing Chaseville, circa 1960, photo by developer Lonnie Wurn, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Fulton and Cosmo kind of connect together,” the pastor told Lyn Corley, “because most of my foreparents was buried in the Fulton Cemetery.” Part, at least, of Fulton Cemetery was likewise removed and a suburban street called Woodsong Loop West in the subdivision called Beacon Hills and Harbor now stands in its place. Longtime Arlington resident and historian Cleve Powell, however, who died in 2018, said part of the cemetery remained in a Woodsong Loop back yard.

3. Coastal Connections

“My earliest remembrance coming with my father as he traveled in his ministry was Cosmo, Florida,” Marguerite Redding told Corley. Her father, Felix Early Lewis, was an evangelist whose calling took him, at various times, from Nashville, Tennessee to West Palm Beach. The Bishop C.D. Braddy and his mother-in-law, Bishop Sophie M. Jewel, had established the Cosmo branch of The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth in 1935. Since its founding by Mother Mary Magdalena Tate in Nashville in 1903, the church had always elevated its female leaders.

Mother Mary Magdalena Tate, image courtesy Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth

The Cosmo church began, Marguerite says, when Bishop Jewel and her granddaughter Mary Neil Bartley began “to teach the way of holiness.” Reverend Bartley, of course, was descended from the forefather of Cosmo, James Bartley. “The first building for services was the old schoolhouse that had been donated by Elder Dennis Bartley.”

Cosmo Schoolhouse, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Nobody’s sure when the one-room Cosmo Schoolhouse was built. Several longtime residents say it dated from the 1930s, though clearly it was older if Elder Bartley donated it to The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth in ’35. Reverend Demps said Alexander Memorial United Methodist, its current structure built in 1949, also began in the Cosmo Schoolhouse.

Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church in Cosmo

Marguerite Redding describes the interconnections of black communities and the large numbers of children former slaves so frequently had. It gets complicated fast. If you can’t chart it, you can listen to its music. She speaks of “Bishop Brooks,” who “was married to Elnora Bartley,” and “the Coopers,” who “came over from Lone Star, but moved into Cosmo, and the Coopers had a very large family and so some of the Coopers, I think, Mary Lee, she was a Bartley,” and Bishop Mary Key Bartley, who succeeded Bishop Brooks at “the church of Cosmo.”

Cosmo Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth

She says the place where “the little schoolhouse” stood lay “in somewhere between Alexander and the Church at Cosmo that is there now. The property where the schoolhouse sat is still owned by the Church of the Living God.” An ancient foundation, broken, infiltrated by dollarweed and chickweed and wilded pothos, lies beneath the oaks in the long shadow of that little church.

When Marguerite first came down to Cosmo and spoke with the residents, she recalls, “I had to listen to them down through the years and sometimes it took really, really close listening to be able to understand. It was almost like a different language.”

It wasn’t “just that heavy Gullah influence in the speech,” she says. Her brother Meharry had married a South Carolina girl named Rebecca and the family knew she was Geechee and “had a very heavy language,” which they understood to carry the ghosts of African resonances. “But then we came to Cosmo and we met all of these wonderful people and there was something very similar in the sound of their language and how they said things or words that were said.”

So a white man was “buckruh” and dawn was “day clean” and multiple personal pronouns (“he” and “she” and “it”), but also possessive pronouns (“his” and “hers”), were all just “E” and did not reflect gender at all. And they wondered how these isolated groups of people in small areas hundreds of miles apart could share so many similarities in rhythms and patterns and systems of speech, in styles of singing, in specific patterns and techniques in family crafts like basket weaving.

detail of Gullah lexicon chart, courtesy

It was Marguerite’s understanding that coastal island slaves often had greater degrees of autonomy in arts, in religion, in language. “Blacks who were inland,” she says, felt greater pressure to abandon their “heathen” ways and adopt the white lingua franca, English, often upon point of death. Meanwhile, as Frederick Douglass and other authors of slave narratives wrote, just learning the alphabet was illegal, dangerous, as Hugh Auld, Douglass’s master while he was yet a child, said the most basic literacy would “forever unfit him to be a slave.”

“That [African] language was lost among those people who were inland,” Marguerite says, “but it was preserved from the barrier islands where these people could better protect themselves and their culture.”

Six decades prior, Wright Rowan, a small white boy who played with the children at Cosmo, heard his black friends sometimes shift to what he thought was a different language in order to speak amongst themselves or keep some secret or tell an inside joke.

Marguerite Redding, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

For as long as it could, says Marguerite Redding, Cosmo tried to maintain its identity. Only when it’s nearly disappeared, as preceded by so many nearby black communities, has some semblance of official recognition begun to arrive.

4. Heirs and Developers

Cosmo worried little about proving ownership of the land they’d always called home before the City of Jacksonville and Duval County consolidated governments in 1968. Promoters of Consolidation promised that if black leaders backed it, urban black communities would get those basic resources and services they’d never received, from fully paved roads to city water and sewage. Half a century later, a City Council task force would find many of those promises unkept. Early on, while roads in mostly black urban neighborhoods often remained unpaved, the City paved rural roads formerly outside city limits and aided real estate development there.

the back of a new subdivision on an old Cosmo road

Complications in places like Cosmo arose with questions of “heir property,” which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as “land that has been passed down informally from generation to generation. In most cases, it involves landowners who died without a will. Heirs’ property is land owned ‘in common’ by all of the heirs, regardless of whether they live on the land, pay the taxes, or have ever set foot on the land.”

Palm Springs Cemetery in Cosmo, surrounded by new subdivisions

Furthermore, “If a family member dies,” the official 2006 report of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission in South Carolina specifies, “ownership passes down to the living ‘heirs’ who are determined by [state] probate laws.” To receive property from one’s deceased ancestor, probating must determine that ancestor’s debts all paid. Statutes of limitations expire. People die without leaving wills. Heirs often don’t even know their property exists. If they know and if they care, they’re required to go to court to file a “quiet title action.” It’s expensive. It divides the land according to how many heirs from each generation are still alive.

a new subdivision just over the fence from Palm Springs Cemetery in Cosmo

In communities like Cosmo, heir properties pass down within families by word of mouth more often than by written deed. Families often end up victims of unscrupulous legal representation, especially when real estate developers can afford legal teams to convince heirs their connections to the land are weak, that they should sell their interests for a pittance. Heirs can go to court to sue for their share of the property value, but if heirs who wish to keep the land can’t afford to pay heirs who want their share cashed out, courts can force land sold at “fire sale prices.”

All a developer has to do is convince one heir to sell the developer his share, which allows that developer to sue to challenge the rights of any other heirs who might wish to stop the developer from building on the property.

In the process of recording the oral history of Cosmo, Lyn Corley, a white researcher, learned that a cousin of hers had developed multi-million dollar homes with a yacht club in a subdivision called St. Johns Landing Estates, “land or surrounding land [that] had been settled, lived on, and lost by lack of legal understanding of property ownership succession by the Cosmo-Fulton residents.”

detail of 1898 map of Fulton, Florida, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Reverend Demps chose her words cautiously. When Ryan Benk of WJCT News spoke with Demps on March 17, 2016, she said, “The properties that were down there – I don’t want to say ‘taken,’ but you know, they were taken advantage of. They were older people. They didn’t know.” New housing tracts now peek over the tops of wooden fences from land the older people owned to those elders’ graves in Cosmo’s Palm Springs Cemetery.

a new subdivision just over the fence from Palm Springs Cemetery in Cosmo

Jesus may have said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” but more often the meek have their inheritance of the earth stolen from beneath their feet.

5. Grown Up in the Gift of the Land

Their grandmother was Ella Brown. “That’s my daddy’s mother,” Nathaniel Brown says. “She was married twice, wasn’t she?”

“Oliver,” says Theodore Brown.

“Oliver Brown,” Nathaniel says.

“We found out that property was all hooked up with, it was called ‘heir property,’” Nathaniel says. “In other words, it was all connected with the relatives. Nothing ever got done and the property was dispersed because of lack of keeping up the taxes.”

Aunt Ethel Mantaque, says Nathaniel, the brothers’ father’s sister, Reverend Demps’s grandmother, “had a big old house” in Fulton. “Two story house,” Theodore says. An old wooden house. Their “auntie” raised Josephine, her daughter, and her eight (“at least”) children.

detail of 1889 map of Fulton, Florida, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

“But again, after a few years,” says Nathaniel, “after I was old enough to be aware of what was going on, because I didn’t know, I was just going by what I, they moved to Cosmo from Fulton, Sister, my Aunt Ethel, she, she had a friend, who was that guy? Mr. Cotton?”

“Mr. Cotton,” Theodore says.

Nathaniel calls his aunts and cousins “Sister,” says, “Yeah, Mr. Cotton that was her friend and he had a little money and he built houses along Fort Caroline. He built about four or five of them, didn’t he, Brother? They looked just alike. One was blue and he called that ‘The Blue Chip.’ That was the club. But all the other houses he rented out to Sister Ethel Montaque, my auntie’s children. Josephine had a house. Sister Ida Merrill had a house.”

Cotton had money. Grandmother was Cotton’s girlfriend. Interviewing the brothers for “Conversations from Cosmo,” Lyn Corley asks if the houses remain. “Oh, no!” Nathaniel says. Three generations of homes, all gone!

Their father started building their mother a new house, then became sick. It was a smaller house. He built it with his own hands. Then people “went different directions,” but Nathaniel stayed with their mother and some of her grandchildren. Theodore says, “It was our land,” and Nathaniel says, “It really wasn’t our land,” then says he wishes he’d “done something to get that land, especially the land my mama was livin’ on. Get the taxes. Get everything. Man, I could’ve done it, but the only thing I wanted to do at that time was just move away.”

The brothers heard how everything was “coming up ‘heir property, heir property.’” They argue about what actually happened and Nathaniel says, “I think Sister Demps and them were able to do something to secure their land,” says, “Uncle Johnny” built a log cabin, cut down the longleaf pines, and the living room served “as a little jook joint,” and they held dances and somebody played the piccolo and Aunt Ethel or her sister “built this little Blue Dot place or whatever.”

When Corley asks the brothers if any white people lived in Cosmo, Nathaniel says, “Oh yeah,” pauses, then emphasizes, “Now.” They don’t know they live in Cosmo. They live in the subdivisions they don’t know were built on decades of legal subterfuge, on 20th and 21st century extensions of that failed promise of “40 acres and a mule” or that 1855 Florida Act to encourage liberal improvements.

“There really is no Cosmo,” Nathaniel says as he acknowledges the new sign that says, “Welcome to Cosmo.” You can’t find Cosmo on a map, he says. When Cosmo was Cosmo, everybody was black. The larger white culture neither listened to nor acknowledged blackness.

“There was nobody else but us,” he says, and the earth and the river and the trees and the berries were more democratic, egalitarian, ever in “good faith” and honest. And the brothers and their friends and families, and the sparse communities linked by old sand roads through the woods those hundreds of miles up the coast, grew up and loved one another and spoke their own words in their own patterns and songs. They throve. Prospered. Even as already they’d begun to disappear. They made their own narrative. Told it. They sculpted a world here in the gift of the land.