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Alex Hughes

In 1915, Boca Raton was a well-established tiny agricultural community in southern Palm Beach County. The pioneers of the community were finding success with a variety of crops including tomatoes, beans, eggplants, bananas, oranges, and pineapples. Much of the work of the farms, land clearing, planting, and harvesting, was done by black laborers, also pioneers to the region, who lived in nearby Deerfield. They had to walk from two to ten miles to the Boca farms, work a difficult ten-hour day in the hot Florida sun, and trudge home again. Recognizing this difficulty, Mr. George Long, acting as an agent for landowner Captain Tom Rickards, platted a section of Boca Raton specifically for a black community in 1915 next to the railroad tracks and north of town (at today’s Glades Road). He named it “Pearl City,” possibly in honor of a popular variety of pineapple grown in the region—the Hawaiian Pearl.

Alex Hughes, one of Boca Raton’s early African American pioneers, had come to Deerfield from Monticello, Florida with his wife Florence to seek their fortune in the newly developing South Florida. He found work on the Chesebro family’s farm located south of Palmetto Park Road and between Dixie Highway and the Intracoastal Waterway. Hughes bought one of the first lots in the new Pearl City for $25, with $10 down. He recalled, “All that was here when I first came was a lot of palmettos, spruce pines and mosquitoes.” In Pearl City he built a small wooden house with his own hands. Widowed in 1917, he later met and married a widow with six children—Annie Dolphus Spain. Despite the small income he earned as a farm laborer, his strong faith helped him shelter, feed, and raise the six boys as if they were his own. Annie also worked, cleaning peoples’ homes. They had a garden to supplement their income. There they raised greens, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. They also kept hogs, chickens, and a cow for milk. Huckleberries and grapes, picked on family outings, were used to make pies and preserves. Squirrels, rabbits, and all sorts of fish provided additional sources of protein.

Alex quickly became a leader in his community, putting his construction and leadership skills to good use. As soon as Pearl City had enough residents, he started a Sunday School at his home. When local residents wanted to build their own church, Alex convinced pioneer George Long to give them a lot and helped build the structure that in 1920 became the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church. He continued to serve an active role in this church throughout his life. He also helped acquire the land for the Ebenezer Baptist Church. These churches served as the center for social as well as religious activities in Pearl City.

As Pearl City grew, Alex Hughes recognized the need for a school for the community’s children. He knew the value of a good education. Alex only completed the first seven grades in school. After the seventh grade, he dropped out of school to work to help send his siblings to school in Tallahassee when he was a teenager in Monticello. During the days of segregation, black students were not allowed to attend the nearby school for white students. Alex recalled, “I went to the Board of Public Instruction in West Palm Beach. They told me that if I could find eight children, they would provide a teacher. I came right on back and mustered up eight children and they sent a teacher down, Miss Robinson…” For a building, the School Board provided the former school for white children. The two-room wooden building was moved from its original site, just west of the FEC Railway tracks on Palmetto Park Road, to a new site on Dixie Highway and Eleventh Street in 1923.

Long after most of Mr. Chesebro’s original farmland had been sold off and developed, Alex Hughes continued to work as caretaker on the last surviving acre, located south of Palmetto Park Road near Dixie Highway. There he tended the tropical fruit trees, banyans, and a large patch of Amaryllis lilies, grown from seeds planted in 1932. An avid gardener, Alex maintained the site, selling blooms and bouquets for the property owners for over sixty years.

In 1972, the City of Boca Raton named a playground in Pearl City after Alex Hughes, of which he was quite proud. He continued to work until two months before his death at age 92 in 1977. His son George recalled that his father was a hard man to keep up with—his work “kept him going.” Alex Hughes was also well known and respected throughout the city of Boca Raton. His neighbor Mrs. Fannie Mae Albury, also a long time resident of Pearl City, remembered Alex as “kind and soft-spoken. Everybody loved Mr. Hughes, white and black.”

By Susan Gillis, Boca Raton Historical Society

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