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Girls/Boys State TCC State and Local Government > Posts > Florida's Diverse Populations  

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July 01
Florida's Diverse Populations

Welcome to Florida, where everyone is from somewhere else!

  • The people of Florida are, and are becoming, more diverse than ever before.
  • With regard to diversity, Florida has a higher percentage of minority populations than the national average.
  • While the state's Asian population is a bit lower than the rest of the country, Florida has a much higher black and Hispanic population than other states. 
  • To see more of Florida's diverse population right-click and choose "Open Link in New Window":

The People of Florida

American Indian, Eskimo or Aleut
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
Hispanic or Latino Origin
White, Non-Hispanic


Florida’s Diverse Origins

Railroads in Florida

  • In 1834, the first railroad in Florida was built from Tallahassee to St. Marks. Pulled by mules, the rickety cars transported 50,000 bales of cotton a year to waiting ships bound for northern and European ports.
  • Until the outbreak of the Civil War, short lines would be the only railroads found north of Gainesville.
  • In 1861, the Florida Railroad was completed from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key only to be destroyed by invading Union troops.
  • As in other southern states after the Civil War, the construction of railroads in Florida was hampered by a lack of capital investors and corruption of those who did invest.
  • The purchase of over 4,000,000 acres from disgruntled land speculators, railroad bondholders and the State of Florida would open the interior of Florida from Pensacola to South Florida to future investors.
  • During the 1880s and ‘90s, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, would proceed to construct lines along Florida’s west and east coasts, respectively. Flagler would eventually extend his line to Key West with the Overseas Railroad, an unparalleled engineering feat.
  • Construction of railroads down the center of the state contributed to the 1920s Land Boom and established Florida as a destination for tourists, commercial agriculture and other industries such as phosphate and truck farming.

Right-click on the following link and choose "Open Link in New Window" to view the Flagler Museum website, webpage on Florida East Coast Railway history.

Slave Trade in Florida

  • The slave trade began in Florida with the establishment of St. Augustine by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. As that new military fortification was extremely isolated, these enslaved Africans usually escaped into the interior to establish their own communities or to align with the native tribes.
  • The continued loss of slaves almost certainly contributed to the implementation of a more benign form of Spanish slavery.
  • While the Spanish did import Africans as slaves, they often worked at a less demanding task system than did their northern brethren. Many purchased or were given their freedom as reward for acts of bravery or superior work. In addition, the Spanish encouraged slaves to the north to escape to Florida where they could be granted freedom. These new residents would later prove excellent soldiers.
  • Over the next 250 years, Spanish Florida would become a haven for runaway slaves from British colonies and American States, a factor that played significantly in the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1821. As an American territory and state, Florida would implement the American system of slavery that was in place through the Civil War.
  • From 1821 through 1861, slaves would far outnumber white settlers in "Middle Florida" where cotton farms and plantations continued to prosper on the backs of slave labor.

View the website “History of Slavery” by right-clicking on the picture of the slave ship and choosing "Open Link in New Window."  In addition see the following link specific to Slavery in Florida.

Citrus and Sugar Migrant Workers

  • Following the Civil War, thousands of new settlers, both black and white, relocated to Florida in search of options other than "behind the plow." Over the next 30 years, the citrus, phosphate and agricultural markets would explode.
  • As the population moved into the interior and further south, thousands of acres were planted in citrus and vegetables. Here seasonal harvesting formed the nucleus of a migratory work force.
  • In late winter and early spring, sharecroppers from North Florida would migrate to the citrus groves to harvest the new fruit. Over time, many sharecroppers abandoned their farms and began to follow the crops exclusively.
  • In the early 1900s, the draining of the Everglades opened still more land to agriculture. In the subtropical climate, sugar cane could grow in areas previously underwater. This new crop required a new type of worker, one experienced in the planting, cultivating and harvesting of sugar cane.
  • New immigrants from Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti relocated to south Florida. These workers were similar to the migrant citrus worker of north and central Florida in that they were semi-nomadic as the seasonal demand for labor waxed and waned.
  • Over time, Mexican farm workers would also relocate to Florida's more stable agricultural economy.
  • While the railroads and boom times of the 1920s would provide the workers with plenty of work, the Great Depression of the 1930s severely limited their opportunities.
  • By the 1960s, migrant workers had begun to follow national markets, returning to Florida for the citrus or vegetable season, moving on average four times a year.
  • To read more about Florida's Migrant Workers click on the following link.  On that site you will find links to other helpful sites about the migrant workers and their conditions.

Greek Sponge Divers

  • Sponging in Florida originated in the Florida Keys, particularly Key West, in 1849. For the next 50 years, spongers used long poles to "hook" the sponges off the shallow ocean floor.
  • In 1905, Greek immigrant John Cocoris realized that the use of the Greek method of deep-water sponging could be used off the coast of Tarpon Springs. He and other Greek businessmen transformed a small town into a world-renowned center for the sponge industry.
  • Today, the City of Tarpon Springs embraces the Greek heritage that has made their community famous. Tarpon Springs is known as "the sponge capital of the world."
  • In the 1930s, the sponge industry of Tarpon Springs was very prosperous, bringing in millions of dollars of sponges yearly. But in the 1940s, the sponge beds were contaminated and destroyed by bacteria, which led to a decline in the sponge industry. The industry was revived in the 1980s when healthy sponge beds were found.
  • Now Tarpon Springs is back to being a leader in the world's natural sponge market. All aspects of the sponge industry take place in Tarpon Springs, from the harvesting of the sponge, all the way to the auctions that are held weekly at the Sponge Docks for wholesalers.

To view a website on the history of Tarpon Springs’ Sponge Industry, right-click on the picture of sponges and boats and choose "Open Link in New Window."

Florida Crackers
  • The "Crackers" came to Florida from other southern states, most often Georgia and Alabama, and were usually of Scotch-Irish descent. They came in search of opportunity and freedom, and succeeded in creating a culture unique to Florida.
  • These hardy people settled in the most isolated areas of the state and eked out an existence. They farmed small farms planted in corn and herded wild hogs and bush cattle.
  • In fact, the term "Cracker" came from the sound made by the whips of the cowboys on cattle drives.
  • In parts of the state, native Floridians embrace the name as a tribute to the rugged, self-sufficient pioneers that braved the wilderness of Florida.
  • Through the efforts of folklorists, anthropologists and historians, the culture, traditions and contributions of these intrepid settlers has continued to be explored and documented.

For More Florida History Resources, right click on the following and choose "Open Link in New Window":

Cuban Cigar Workers

  • In Florida, Cuban trade in cigars flourished during the two centuries of Spanish rule.
    Shops of Cuban cigar makers lined the streets of St. Augustine, and to a lesser extent, Pensacola. When Florida became an American territory in 1821, many Cubans stayed and the industry continued to grow.
  • As the cigar industry increased in importance, several prominent cigar merchants relocated their cigar-making shops to Key West and, later, to Tampa.
    Here the workers joined social, fraternal and cultural clubs that provi
    ded medical and retirement benefits to its members.
  • At work, lectors read from books and periodicals as the workers rolled cigars by the thousands.
  • By the 1890s, the small Cuban community of Ybor City in Tampa had surpassed Key West as the center of the cigar industry.
  • It had become an enclave for revolutionary Cubans fighting for independence from Spain.
  • One of those revolutionaries, José Martí made fiery speeches calling for an independent Cuba. His rhetoric, picked up in the national newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer fanned the flame of national discontent until the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine sparked the onset of the Spanish-American War and put Tampa "on the map."

Right-click on the picture of the ship and choose "Open Link in New Window" to read more on the history of the U.S.S. Maine.

Jewish and Northern Influences
  • The first northern tourists to visit Florida arrived by steamboat and steamship in the 1880s lured by the warm winter weather. By the turn of the 20th century, Florida resort owners were actively marketing to northern residents.
  • One area particularly targeted was New York. Here, Jewish motel owners in Florida advertised to northern Jews. Upon visiting, many stayed and relocated other family members.
  • In Miami Beach and other cities, Jews were able to establish hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Even though they were segregated from the Gentile population, this in fact made for stronger Jewish communities that continued to grow and thrive.
  • Other New Yorkers, both Catholic and Protestant also relocated to the Sunshine State during the 1920s through the 1960s.
  • By the 1970s, south Florida, and particularly Miami Beach, had a distinctive northern flavor.
  • Older immigrants who come to warm sunny Florida to visit in the winter months are referred to as "Snowbirds." These snowbirds normally originate in northern states, and Canada.
  • Many snowbirds decide to stay. Factors other than the weather may play a significant role in turning the "snowbird" immigrants into permanent residents.
  • Florida's lack of a state income tax, as well as many restricted communities which allow only retired persons, may play a large role in why Florida's largest immigrant group can be distinguished by their age, rather than their cultural origin. Source: US Census Bureau

The people of Florida look a bit older than other states...
Percentage of the Population under 18
Percentage of the Population 65 and older

Caribbean Migration

  • In the last thirty years, Miami's demographic balance has shifted radically due to an unprecedented influx of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America.
  • Between 1959 and 1980, over 625,000 Cubans fled into exile. In the eighties, hundreds of thousands of Haitians, Nicaraguans, and others from Caribbean and Latin American nations streamed into the area.
  • By the end of the decade, additional thousands from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa quietly settled in Miami. Today Miamians are 21 percent black, 30 percent non-Hispanic white, and 49 percent Hispanic. (Page 101, Tina Bucuvalas, South Florida Folklife, Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.)
Mariel Boat Lift
  • During 1980, from early April until late September, close to 125,000 Cuban migrants came to Florida as part of what was called the Mariel Boat Lift. Many of the boats were not seaworthy, were heavily overloaded, and were easily capsized. As a result, a number of would-be immigrants drowned, including 14 on one overloaded boat in May that year.
  • As many as 1,387 boats required assistance from the United States Coast Guard.
  • Short-term costs to the Coast Guard alone to maintain the operation were over $650,000 per week.
  • Over 60% of the migrants were adult males, who, it was feared, were being released from Cuban prisons. While these reports were not confirmed, the rumors did create strong resentment toward the recent Cuban immigrants, particularly in South Florida, and heightened concern with regard to increases in crime.

Right-click the photograph and choose "Open Link in New Window" to view the US Coast Guard webpage on the Mariel Boat Lift.  Right-click on the link below and choose "Open Link in New Window" to view an article by David Card “The Impact of the Mariel Boat Lift on the Miami Labor Market.”

Today’s Floridians
  • Florida's diversity is becoming even greater today. According the U.S. Census Bureau, since 2000, Florida’s population has increased by more than 14%.



Compare this to other states (right-click on the following link and choose "Open Link in New Window":

  • Only a small percentage of Florida's population growth has come from its domestic population.

  • The majority of Florida's growth is attributed to people moving to Florida from other states, followed closely by people moving from other countries.



  • The percentage of Floridians born in other countries is increasing a rapid rate.
  • The vast majority of Florida's foreign-born population comes from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America. Recent history has shown Cuba as having been the greatest contributor to Florida's population.
  • The future of the state, while still indicating a high level of immigration from Cuba, indicates that Florida's immigration may no longer be heavily concentrated in the Caribbean.



  • Florida is currently the 4th most populous state in the country.
  • Projections show Florida will increase to the 3rd most populous state by 2011, edging past New York.
  • Education, crime, and social welfare issues are sure to become crucial in the growth and development of the state.
  • Issues such as these have Floridians very concerned about growth. It is ironic that in a state where almost 20% of the population was foreign-born, March 2009 Zogby Polling results of registered Florida voters found that an overwhelming majority believe that illegal immigration is harming the state.
  • The majority of respondents stated that they would support a candidate who in turn supported immigration reduction.
  • While a diverse population brings with it a rich resource of culture, it also brings new challenges to a rapidly growing state.


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