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Local historian looks at the unlikely story of Orlando’s emergence

A Q&A with Jim Clark, author of ‘Orlando, Florida: A Brief History’

Photo: Photos courtesy Jim Clark, License: N/A

Photos courtesy Jim Clark

Orange Avenue in Downtown Orlando in the 1930s

Photo: , License: N/A

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The history of Orlando is best bifurcated into two distinct eras: Before Disney and After Disney. We know what happened After Disney. The 42 years since Disney World opened have seen exponential growth – unfettered sprawl, strip malls, congested highways, a low-wage tourism economy. But most of us know less about Before Disney – about the men whose names (Summerlin, Bumby, Phillips) adorn our roads; about how close Orlando came to being a forgotten suburb of a thriving Ocala or Sanford; about the age when stray alligators roamed Orange Avenue (the city had a designated gator wrestler) and freezes waylaid the citrus industry; about the dark history of racism (a county sheriff was a proud Klansmen) and graft (an Orlando police chief was indicted for bootlegging).

Worse, we don’t know how all of these elements, in place long before Walt Disney flew over the land that would one day bear his name (Nov. 22, 1963, the day of the Kennedy assassination), weaved a fabric into which this community is still very much entwined.

Earlier this month, The History Press published Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, written by University of Central Florida history professor and former Orlando magazine editor and publisher Jim Clark, who moved here in 1975 as a young journalist to work for the Orlando Sentinel. Tracking the very first settlers through to the three hurricanes of 2004, Clark offers a glimpse of the interlocking threads that made Orlando what it is today.

Below is a transcript of our conversation with Clark, edited for space and clarity.
Orlando Weekly: As I was reading about Orlando’s early years, the words that kept coming to mind were “accidental city” – the idea that, but for a few strokes of luck, Central Florida’s major metropolitan center would have ended up elsewhere.
I doubt the Chamber of Commerce would embrace the slogan “Orlando, The Accidental City,” but that is what it is. The day before Walt Disney flew over Orlando, he drove to Ocala to inspect it as a site for Disney World. Suppose he had seen what he was looking for and called off the trip to Orlando. We could be talking about the Ocala Magic and the Ocala Philharmonic. If the city hadn’t struck an amazing deal to acquire what is now Orlando International Airport from the federal government, Glenn Martin [of the Martin Company, now Lockheed-Martin] might have built his plant in Brevard County to be closer to the space program. If [cattle rancher] Jacob Summerlin hadn’t put up $10,000 to build a new courthouse in the late 1800s, the county seat would have moved to Sanford (then part of Orange County), and Orlando would have remained a small village.
 Sanford was the natural site for a major city; it had a port and the railroad hub. But Orlando had better leadership. Orlando’s emergence is an amazing story. We have been the cattle center of Florida, the citrus center of Florida and now the tourist center of Florida. Few cities have adjusted as well to changing economies.
There’s an interesting story in the book about how the city forced black families out to make way for the whites.
Orlando has a long, sad history of African-American removal. Jonestown was a black community near Greenwood Cemetery. It was largely made up of small houses and shacks, but they were owned by blacks. Whites began moving into the area, and the city forced the blacks to give up the homes they owned and move into public housing. They were forced to live in the Parramore area, but as the civil rights movement began, they began moving closer to downtown. One of the reasons 1-4 was brought through downtown was to push blacks back into Parramore. Since then, the state, city and federal governments have built a wall of office buildings along I-4, pushing blacks back further. The original arena and new arena displaced more blacks, and the soccer stadium will continue the tradition.

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