Submitted by Ron Kurtz
Former Director Amelia Island Museum
June 12, 2014 1:00 a.m.
There is a new presence at the foot of Centre Street, in front of our Historic Depot. Fernandina is the site of the first public statue honoring David Levy Yulee. He remains a central player in Florida’s Nineteenth Century history.
A dedicated group of volunteers whose efforts have been supported by the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation has devoted years in the planning and execution of this project. One key element was identifying an artist who would be sensitive to the challenges. Noted sculptor, Susan Luery was chosen. She is best known for her 16-foot statue of “Babe” Ruth at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and the “George Washington-Visionary” located at Fort Cumberland which has been accepted into the Smithsonian Museum Inventory of American Painting and Sculpture.
This is not David Levy Yulee’s first “first.” He played a significant role in our state’s history. Like most of us, his life displayed contradictions, but the end result is that he served us well, first by representing the territory of Florida in Washington D.C. and later as a two-term US Senator, the first Jew to hold that position. From his arrival in the Nation’s Capitol, he focused on achieving statehood for the territory he was representing.
David is considered to be the Father of Florida Statehood. After becoming a lawyer, he participated in the 1834 Seminole War conference and later served on the St. Joseph’s Convention which crafted our state constitution, guided by that of Alabama. His hand has long been at the helm of our political and governmental future.
But who is this man we are recognizing? That complex question has a variety of answers. Born June 12, 1810 in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, West Indies to Moses Levy and Hannah Margarite Abendanone, he began life with one name, David Levy, but would end it with another, David Levy Yulee. Therein lies a tale. A Danish territory that would later be ruled by England, the Virgin Islands were where he spent his first years as the privileged son of a family of significant wealth and Sephardic Jewish heritage. Eventually Moses divorced his wife and after time spent in Cuba, began acquiring land in Florida, which was then a territory of Spain. He had purchased most of the Arrendondo Grant with the idea of creating a Jewish promised land. Moses envisioned a utopian place where, based on an agricultural lifestyle, life could be lived according to ancient Biblical guidelines as described in the Torah. He sent 3 of his children to Europe for their education while David was sent to Norfolk, Virginia to be schooled in the classics as opposed to a more traditional religious education.
The stage was set for a conflict that took a lifetime to resolve. His Classical education, in addition to the prejudices of the times and his aspirations, all conspired to make his adherence to the practice of Judaism problematic. David was a Southern gentleman, and as such, sought to reflect certain expected values. His marriage to a devout Christian further challenged his beliefs. Eventually, David concluded that he was not either/or: he was both. According to Maurice I. Wiseman, in his UFL Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, “His basic religious philosophy stressed the concept of free will alongside the Enlightenment ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It is of note that almost immediately upon statehood being established, David went before the newly created State Legislature and successfully petitioned to have his name changed before his marriage to Nancy Wickliffe, daughter of the former Governor of Kentucky and Post Master General of the United States. He retained Levy, yet added Yulee, which referenced his grandfather’s Morrocan connection. This was a significant North African dynasty of stature and influence. There is no evidence that he ever converted, but rather that he honored his heritage while shading it with humanistic philosophies. His personal library held many volumes on theology.
Having fought valiantly and successfully for statehood, David was among the first to secede. A man of his region, he was a Jacksonian Democrat who strongly supported the concept of States’ Rights, territorial expansion, rugged individualism and a small central government. Once, in a letter to Gov. Broome (Note that Fernandina has a Street named in his honor, as well as in recognition of the County that bears his name), he referred to himself as a “Southern patriot” and that “…the South should affiliate with no party which does not distinctly recognize the States as the only Sovereignties, and the Union as a compact between them.”
David used his access to political opportunities to further his plan to develop the regional economy. Fernandina is the location of the deepest natural harbor on the Southeast coast. European trade had to sail through treacherous waters and round the peninsula before getting to the Gulf of Mexico. David realized that if he could cross the most narrow part of Florida and connect to a port and harbor on the West coast, he would have achieved a significant advantage. He created the first trans peninsular railroad in Florida, which started here in Fernandina and ended in Cedar Key.
But his imagination did not stop here. In 1853 he convinced the government of Mexico to allow a brief span of tracks to be laid over the isthmus. A trade route would then have been created that would have opened up a world-wide trade route, connecting Europe and the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and trade with the Orient. What Columbus had sought to accomplish in the 15th Century, David was about to achieve in the 19th Century. The irony is that the diaspora initiated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced the Sephardic Jews to leave Spain on the heels of Columbus as he left to discover the illusive water trade route to the Orient. They resettled in many places, including Morocco, which was where David’s family journeyed.
Following the example of his father, David purchased land. On Amelia Island he acquired the two plantations on which present-day Fernandina is built. Old Town and it’s port facilities inspired him to find an alternate location that would permit a more direct access to the mainland, and hence speed the construction of his railroad. A copy of the original town platt as he envisioned it is at the Amelia Island Museum of History. On it you will find similarities to another major port location: New York City. We, too, have streets laid out in a grid pattern, and a Central Park, in addition to being of a similar size. The first train left the station in March of 1861. In April of the same year the Civil War began and construction of the second section of the railroad was halted, never to be restarted.
At the end of the War, David was held in Ft. Pulaski due to a letter he sent to Joseph Finegan. It was discovered when the Federal troops took control of Amelia Island. In it, David encouraged seizing Federal military property and turning it over to the Confederacy. This was considered a treasonable offense, as it was sent before secession while he was still serving as a U.S. Senator. Yulee was granted amnesty in May 1866 through the intervention of General Ulysses S. Grant, some 13 months after the conclusion of the war.
Yulee’s prosperity, like that of so many in the early years of our Country’s history, was enabled through the labor of slaves. Thankfully, after the War, this would no longer be the case. Yulee redirected his considerable energy and vision on the future. Pragmatically, in a letter to a friend, he stated, “It is bootless to look back.” His desire for political power had been channeled into rebuilding the future of his railroad and Florida’s economy.
David and Nannie left Fernandina and moved to Washington D. C. in 1881, where they built a home on Connecticut Avenue. Their Fernandina residence, just a few blocks from the Depot, was on the corner of Alachua and 3rd Streets, its location noted today by a small marker. Yulee died October 10, 1886 and is buried beside Nannie in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington.
David Levy Yulee is the Father of Florida Statehood and the first Jew to serve as a U.S. Senator, a visionary who wrested a railroad from the wilderness that was early Florida. He is also the Father of Fernandina since it was his redesign and relocation of the original town that enabled the creation of the town as we know it today. David was a complex man and a dreamer who made his dreams happen. Levy County is named in his honor. The town of Yulee bears his name, as does a World War II liberty ship. Finally there is a statue of him, the very first in Florida, to honor his many accomplishments. Thursday, June 12, 2014 marks the 204th year to pass since his birth. Here at the foot of Centre Street where his train tracks and the waters of the harbor converge in front of the Historic Depot, David Levy Yulee is inviting all who pass to perch beside him on his bench. Who knows what dreams will be shared on that bench in the next 204 years.
Editor’s Note: Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., Ron’s early life was one of travel, having started school in Wurtzberg, Germany. A graduate of NYU, he attended Hiram College as well. Shortly after arriving on Amelia Island in 1994, he was appointed director of The Amelia Island Museum of History. As the author of adult and Childrens’ books, he lectures on regional history for the Roads Scholar Programs and has been actively involved in our local Theatres.