Who was Liberty Billings?

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 22, 2019 5:00 p.m.

Until St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Fernandina Beach, FL recently announced plans to move the Liberty Billings house to make room for additional church parking, many local residents had never heard his name, much less understood why he—or his house—would be considered historic and a contributing structure to the city’s Historic District.

Liberty Billings was born in Saco, Maine in 1823.  He was ordained as a Unitarian minister at the age of 25, and 14 years later was commissioned as Lt. Colonel and second in command of the first authorized African-American military unit in the U.S. Army:  the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, later the 33rd United States Colored Infantry.  

After being wounded in the Civil War, Billings was honorably discharged in 1863 and in 1865 arrived in Fernandina and purchased property. Billings championed black rights in Florida and was a leader in Florida’s Reconstruction politics. In 1870, he conducted the U.S. Census in Nassau County. From 1871 to 1877, he was a State Senator, representing Nassau, Duval and St. Johns Counties. Serving as President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, he died in Fernandina in 1877, following efforts to care for victims of the Great Yellow Fever Epidemic.

Billings was one of 12 Fernandina personages recognized by the state of Florida in their Great Floridians 2000 program.  His Great Floridian plaque is located at the family’s home at 222 North 5th Street, Fernandina Beach.  This building was a private residence for many years before becoming a bed-and-breakfast inn in the 1990’s.  The Archdiocese of St. Augustine purchased the property in 2003 for use as living quarters for the Sisters of St. Joseph then teaching at St. Michael’s School.  With the departure of the nuns, the church continued to use the building for church business.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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