Army Physician During the Civil WarDr. Esther Hill Hawks was an army physician and a teacher during the Civil War. A woman ahead of her time, Dr. Hawks taught both freed slaves and whites in what may have been Florida's first interracial school, before returning to New England to practice medicine.
Esther Hill was born in 1833. After marrying Dr. John Milton Hawks, she studied his medical books and decided to go to medical school. She graduated from New England Medical College for Women in 1857, becoming one of the first female physicians in America.
Before the Civil War, Hawks and her husband, both ardent abolitionists, had a practice in Manchester, New Hampshire. After Hilton Head, South Carolina, and the surrounding areas were occupied by Union forces in 1861, Dr. John Hawks joined the United States Colored Troops to treat the former slaves and freedmen he had advocated for in the years leading up to the war. He served as a medical officer for a black regiment on the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
Dr. Esther Hawks joined him there in 1862. She provided medical care for the blacks and worked as a contract physician in General Hospital Number 10, which was established for black soldiers in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina. In July 1863, she helped care for the black soldiers from the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Colored Infantry after its ill-fated attempt to take Fort Wagner, in which their valiant colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed.
Already defying convention by being a certified woman physician, Dr. Esther Hill Hawks did a brief stint as the regimental surgeon, but was forbidden to continue practicing medicine after a new doctor took charge of the hospital.
Thereafter Dr. Esther Hawks spent her days educating the African American soldiers and their families so that they would be able to live better lives after the war ended. After the war, she continued to work in the area, caring for former slaves and teaching school.
She kept a diary that covers the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The South she described consisted of carpetbaggers, occupation troops, zealous missionaries, freed slaves and their hungry children. She described the South she saw - conquered but still proud.
After the war, the soldiers and slaves that Drs. Esther and John Hawks had cared for in South Carolina joined them on a trek to Volusia County, on the east coast of Florida. There, they established a large colony of freed slaves, in an area just south of what is now Daytona Beach.
The Homestead Act of 1866 enabled freedmen to acquire government lands in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. Florida was a natural choice; it was sparsely populated and for the most part undeveloped.
Volusia County had few black residents; the population in 1860 was 1158, of which 297 were black, according to the census. Most of those lived in the western part of the county, in settlements near the St. Johns River.
The freedmen chose to settle in the east, near the Halifax River, on public lands secured with the help of the United States Freedmen's Bureau. About 500 former slaves initially settled there. An additional 1,000 would arrive via steamboats in the following months, making this area the most populous in Volusia County at that time. Dr. John Hawks named the settlement Port Orange in 1867.
John Hawks and several other men, who had been officers of black regiments during the war, formed the Florida Land and Lumber Company. They issued shares in this business venture. The officers purchased up to $1000 in stock. The former black soldiers put up $100 each, which was a large amount of money in those days.
Dr. Esther Hill Hawks arrived in Florida one month after her husband. As a teacher with the Freedmen's Aid Society, she established what might have been the first integrated school in Florida. She taught black adults, and both black and white children.
There was a delay in getting a sawmill up and running, so the people lived in crude huts at the beginning, and the schoolhouse was unfinished for quite some time. So, Esther taught school outside, building a log fire for warmth when needed. The adults sat on benches, and the children sat on the ground. They wrote on slates.
In November 1867, she wrote in her diary that her school was flourishing, with 8 white students and 17 blacks. She reported the black and white children were "playing together as harmoniously as kittens," and that all the former soldiers were learning to read.
But things were not always so rosy. Later, in a letter, she reported that attendance was still small, and there was widespread sickness. In planting season, some students had to work in the fields and were not allowed to attend school. And some white parents objected to their children attending school with blacks. Only four white students were still enrolled.
Farming in Florida's sandy soil and warmer climate proved to be a problem. The settlers needed more supplies and assistance, but they did not receive it. Corruption in the Freedmen's Bureau was blamed for the majority of their troubles. It was believed that agents of the Bureau sold supplies that were meant for the colonists.
The treasurer of the Florida Land and Lumber Company absconded with the money that had been borrowed to finish building the sawmill. By the spring of 1867, only about 250 people remained. Almost half of them were children.
An agent of the Bureau wrote:
Strong men with tears come begging for anything to appease the hunger of their families. They are willing to go any distance to labor and do go 50 and 60 miles to earn a morsel to keep starvation off from day to day.Dr. Hawks continued teaching, even after the colony failed. She traveled far to be closer to the students who had left the settlement. That also brought her closer to unsympathetic whites, who despised integrated schools. In January 1869, a new schoolhouse was torched.
Dr. Esther Hill Hawks returned to New England, where she was able to practice medicine again.
The settlement, the Florida Land and Lumber Company and the integrated school disbanded later that year. Many of the settlers returned to their home states or headed for local citrus groves looking for work. But a few of those original freed slaves remained, and that small settlement became known as "Freemanville."
In 2003, the city of Port Orange unveiled a State of Florida Historic Marker on U.S. Highway 1, which recognizes the small neighborhood that was once known as the Freemanville Settlement.
In 2004, in honor of Black History Month, the City held the first Freemanville Day Celebration. Scheduled annually for the second Tuesday in the month of February, this ceremony honors the community's African American heritage.