A spirit of collaboration and devotion to community has kept the local Bahamian immigrant community, more than a century old, alive and thriving.
Should the world seek a glimmer of hope in the wake of Hurricane Dorian’s catastrophic passage through the Bahamas, perhaps it can find one in the historic Bahamian neighborhood of downtown Delray Beach known as Frog Alley.
This is where Alfred “Zack” Straghn, son of Bahamian parents, grew up and where he observed a dynamic that still stirs in his memory at age 91. It was a spirit that ran through the west-of-Swinton neighborhood, house to house, family to family: a spirit of collaboration, of lifting up one another despite the hardships of immigrant life and life in segregated America.
“They got along well because whatever they had was shared with one another. There was not a Bahamian here that I know of that didn’t own their own house. That’s because they helped one another, and helped build one another’s houses,” says Straghn, who grew up to be a funeral home owner. Today he operates Straghn and Son Tri-City Funeral Home, one block north of Frog Alley.
The Bahamian immigrant spirit of community devotion planted roots that now run deep in Palm Beach County. The Bahamians that came here in the early 1900s to work on Henry Flagler’s railroad and in the area’s flower farms built more than homes for one another. They built churches, businesses and families. Their descendants are business owners, school principals, lawyers, journalists and other professionals.
“The Bahamians left a good footprint in southern Florida and Palm Beach County. Their resiliency is undeniable,” says Lori Durante, a Delray-born culinary-heritage tour operator and an expert in local historic black neighborhoods.
The footprint she speaks of is not always visible outside the historic Bahamian communities in Delray, Lake Worth, West Palm and Riviera Beach. In many ways, theirs is the quintessential immigrant story about those who seek better lives for their families. But unlike some other immigrant stories, this one cannot be traced in a landscape of flag-bearing restaurants and other cultural neon signs. In fact, chances are you won’t find a Bahamian restaurant in Palm Beach County these days.
The local Bahamian legacy is most evident in fragrant home kitchens and area churches.
“Their ties to the Bahamas are still very strong,” says the Rev. Canon Winston Joseph, a Trinidadian-born pastor who has ministered to local Bahamian-American congregations for 19 years.
Church founded 92 years ago
Until June, he was rector at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in West Palm, a 106-year-old congregation founded by Anglican faithful from Eleuthera. And for the past seven years, he has led the congregation at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, founded by several Lake Worth Bahamian families 92 years ago.
He has an altar view of a phenomenon the public at large never sees: a small but thriving community that has kept its culture, faith and Bahamian devotion alive for a century, without fuss or fanfare. The older congregants, he notes, remain attached to ancient liturgical traditions, the colonial sacred music, “incense and bells” and such. “They still wear their hats to church on Sunday. That is distinctive of them,” he says.
But in many cases, the congregants are the children and grandchildren of Bahamian immigrants. Rev. Joseph can peer into the congregation and find faithful like Christopher Glinton, whose family has helped keep Saint John’s alive for decades.
“Yes, the descendants are still active in the church community,” says Glinton, a charter school principal whose grandfather arrived from Long Island, Bahamas, in the mid 1920s.
Glinton grew up on a Lake Worth street that was predominantly Bahamian.
“Everyone was related through blood or marriage. The culture and food were Bahamian, from pigeon peas and rice to stewed conch to boiled fish,” says Glinton.
He watched through the years as his grandfather continued to support educational efforts back in the Bahamas. In fact, a primary school on Long Island bears the family name.
At 55, Glinton can speak to the nuances of the Bahamian-American experience, the independent spirit, entrepreneurship and the general sense of “purpose and drive toward achievement.”
“There’s always this sense of pride of being Bahamian,” he says. “It has always been a community centered around church and home and family.”
Local Bahamian immigrants, he notes, “really built these communities, which were part of the black population and an integral part of the establishment as a whole.”
And by “integral,” he means Bahamians helped build some of the local landmarks that now define the area, structures like the Lake Worth Casino building and the regional stretch of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.
“Early Bahamian settlers to Delray Beach and Palm Beach pre-date the incorporation of both cities. Many were already here before Flagler,” says local historian Durante. She notes black Bahamians also worked as field hands on flower farms tended by the Japanese farmers of the Yamato Colony in northern Boca Raton.
When early white settlers arrived, she says, they hired black Bahamians to cultivate their lands. “And Flagler employed them to help construct his railroad.”
Bahamian immigrants quickly established roots here, settling in areas such as Frog Alley and Lake Worth’s Lake Osborne Addition. They founded a string of church congregations — St. Matthew’s Episcopal in Delray Beach in 1911, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church near downtown West Palm a couple of years later, Saint John’s in Lake Worth in 1927. In fact, some founding members of St. Paul AME Church in Boynton Beach, established in 1900, were from the Bahamas, says Durante.
“Not only did they bring important manual labor skills for Henry Flagler's FEC and the farms, they were enterprising, too. Their history is woven within the narrative of the tours I conduct,” says Durante, who notes that at least two of old Delray’s historic black-owned hotels were established by Bahamians.
There’s a white Bahamian footprint here as well. Between 1910 and 1920, a small group of white Bahamian fishermen and their families established a community on Singer Island and then the mainland in Riviera Beach that came to be known for its self-sufficient, water-loving, carefree spirit. Their experience was documented in a 1939 book and photo project known as Conch Town.
“Conch,” the slang, was the term used to describe white Bahamians. Conch, the marine mollusk, was a delicacy Bahamians at large would celebrate at home in authentic island dishes.
The county can thank people like Edrica “Dee Dee” Miller for sharing that delicacy with the public at large. Raised by her Bahamian grandmother between Delray Beach and Charleston, S.C., Miller learned the spicy, crispy ways of a proper fritter in that grandmother’s kitchen.
When she fell on hard financial times after losing a job in 2007, she turned to her kitchen talents to make a living.
“I told myself, ‘I’m going to start selling conch fritters!’” Miller recalls.
She set up a fryer and stand outside a Boynton church and started making the fritters like her Cat Island-born grandmother had, patting them flat to increase the crisp-surface factor. But when sales lagged, Miller moved the roadside operation to Delray Beach — and it took off. She drew customers from miles around and invitations to serve her fritters at local events.
Bahamian mac and cheese
Two years after she started her conch fritter business, she opened a restaurant called Dee Dee’s Conch and Rib Shack in Delray Beach. She had a good run, she says, but had to close in 2017 after the landlord failed to repair a faulty roof. She now works as an independent caterer.
Growing up in a Bahamian household taught her to be independent, yet remain close to her roots, she says. This is where her strength comes from, she says — the memory of her “old country Bahamian” grandmother, the late Diana Miller, washing the family’s clothes in a tin bucket, making savory porridges, rum cakes, conch chowder and real-deal Bahamian macaroni and cheese.
“What makes it Bahamian macaroni and cheese? Red bell peppers. If you like the aroma of mac and cheese, imagine that smell running through your house, the peppers as they cook, intertwined with the melting cheese,” she says. “It’s the best aroma.”
Bahamian cookery can bring its share of pain, says Miller. She says chopping up conch and hand-whipping the often stiff batter for fritters has caused shoulder injuries that have required surgery.
But she wouldn’t dream of giving it up — cooking is too important to her sense of culture, she says.
“We are very passionate. We’re very organized, strong and very loyal. And we believe strongly in cooking, especially from a homemade standpoint. We believe in having our families sit down and eat a hot meal that sticks not only to the stomach but to the soul,” she says.
In Riviera Beach, it was such matters of the soul that led a Bahamian mother and daughter team to establish a cultural and music festival. The annual Goombay Splash enters its second year on Nov. 9. It is the brainchild of Nassau-born Veronica Bain and her daughter Chezarae Pennerman.
When she moved to Palm Beach County in 1996, Bain started recognizing some of the Bahamian names in Riviera Beach.
“It was fascinating to me, so I did my research. Then I decided, guess what: I’m going to put together a festival,” she says.
In a sense, such a festival runs contrary to the core history of Bahamians in Palm Beach County, where the population’s deepest roots and contributions are cherished more privately and without too much splash, Goombay or not.
But Bain says she was inspired by other communities’ heritage festivals.
“Everyone is keeping their culture alive,” says Bain, who ran a short-lived Bahamian restaurant on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. “Well, we are a unique people and need to do so as well.”
Making it all visible is one of her driving forces, she says. She’ll have the Junkanoo band, the carnival dancers, bands and singers and even a machete-wielding Rico, the Conch Salad King.
“It’s going to be big,” she says. “We’ll make it big for the world to see.”