Their love was forbidden; their survival as an interracial couple in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and through the ensuing Jim Crow era was a miracle. Their union produced 11 children, to whom they gave storybook names—Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, Ida Queen Victoria, Allie Ophelia, Emma Osceola Lavinia, and so on—and to whom they bequeathed an enduring legacy of self-respect, pride and ambition.
They were Nelson Tillis and Zilphie Jane Ellen Summerall and they were probably 24 and 19 years old respectively when they married.
Piecing Together their Story
Nelson Tillis was the first African American to settle in frontier Fort Myers. Family DNA points to the central African country of Cameroon as the origin of his African ancestors. His Caucasian ancestry, if through the Tillis family, was central European. Census records of 1870 list Nelson Tillis as a 23-year-old farm laborer from Florida; the presumption is that he was born into slavery on the Willoughby Tillis ranch in Fort Meade, Florida. Nelson’s descendants believe that Tillis, a cattleman from Georgia, was his father.
Nelson Tillis’s wife, Zilphie Jane Ellen Summerall, was a Caucasian woman of British descent. Where and when she met Nelson is uncertain, but it is certain that “handyman, Nels Tillis” arrived in Fort Myers on Christmas day, 1867, and that, according to a county census, he and his wife, Ellen, had a one-year-old son named Eli in 1870.
The details of their lives are scarce and confused. A few penciled legal documents, a paragraph here and there in contemporary news stories, and conflicting and contradictory accounts in census records, newspaper biographies, and even (understandably) in the stories passed down through four generations of the family are the pieces by which we struggle to reconstruct their lives. The only facts of which we can safely be certain is that Nelson Tillis came to Fort Myers only 10 months after the arrival of Fort Myers’ first homesteaders, Manuel and Evalina Gonzales and Joe and Cristiana Vivas, and that, on August 5, 1890, he was granted, by the homestead act of 1862, 111 acres of land on the north bank of the Caloosahatchee, the deed carrying the seal of the United States and the signature of President Benjamin Harrison.
In 1885, census records show him to be a 39-year-old farmer with a wife, Zilphie, and 8 children, in possession of an estimated $2000 worth of improved land (8 acres) and woodland (100 acres), and $700 worth of oxen, cows, swine and chickens. The Tillis family was prosperous by comparison to any of the residents of Fort Myers.
That Nelson Tillis farmed the land he owned in North Fort Myers is without question, but his daughter, Caroline Candaisie Maybelle (Daisy), who lived to be 104, said that her industrious father was also a commercial fisherman and fishing guide, and that he hauled buttonwood from Punta Rassa to sell to settlers for building material, along with building materials for the town’s first courthouse, and shale for the foundations of many of Fort Myers’ first buildings. It seems that the 18-year-old boy, whom Union troops liberated from the Tillis farm in 1864, had been bursting with latent, entrepreneurial energy.
Family lore has it that at some point in time, the Tillis family relocated to property adjoining the Edison estate and that the two eldest Tillis boys, Eli and Marion, used to fish with Mr. Edison. The loss of that house and property remains a mystery, possibly involving a cattleman’s offer of cattle in trade for it, but the family ultimately relocated to an area known as Pinetucky. Between Victoria and Edison Avenues on the west side of Cleveland Avenue, Pinetucky was integrated at the turn of the century. In fact, Daisy said that in those days, the house was always full of kids, black and white, and that their little white friends used to sleep over, all the children lying crosswise to one another on the beds.
But children grow up. One day black and white playmates walk away from one another forever. Self-consciousness and the strictures of society command separation. In just this way, Fort Myers grew from its pioneer unity of purpose and vision to a city with distinct lines of demarcation. But one sweltering Monday in August of 1897, a line was crossed. Ellen Tillis and her first son, Eli, were shot down in front of their own home.
The first bullet grazed Ellen’s back; the second shattered Eli’s hip. Nelson Tillis swore out a warrant for the arrest of the assailants. Tuesday morning, Sheriff Langford arrested two young white men who were prosecuted for the Tillis shooting as well as for having “fired into the colored church at a colored man” the previous Sunday. The Fort Myers Press praised Mayor Hart’s “scathing denunciation of the parties who were guilty of this dastardly crime, and his plea for law and order and the maintaining of the honor of the town and state…”
Tillis descendants believe that after the shooting in 1897, their great-great grandfather, possibly in fear of the mounting undercurrent of violent racism in the area, began to sell off his land in parcels preparatory to leaving the state. They believe that his intent was to move his family to the Bahamas. (Some family members say that he first came to Fort Myers from the Bahamas.) The family further believes that Tillis left town in 1910, perhaps to find a place for his family in the Bahamas, and that he never returned because he was killed, though by whom and for what reason they can only speculate.
The Family Legacy
Sometime in the 1870s, Nelson Tillis had gone to Key West and come back with a tutor for his young children. The one-room school house he built on his property was the first school for black children in Fort Myers. Not only was it the beginning of the stubborn, continuing and courageous effort of the black community here to educate its children, it was also the catalyst for the tradition of learning and love of books, for the “emphasis on the magic of education,” that has flowed through all the succeeding generations of the Tillis family.
Nelson and Ellen’s daughter, LeoDocia Doreen Anne, “was one of my favorite aunts,” Cassandra Floyd, the great-great granddaughter of Nelson and Ellen Tillis says, because she had a library of at least 200 books. “I always used to go there and look at her library and say to myself, ‘that’s why I love to read, because Aunt Dosh loves to read.’”
Speaking of her grandfather Lewis Perkins’ love of books, Floyd laughed. “I mean, when he was in his 70s and 80s, I was going and getting books for him. He loved westerns, he loved Louis Lamour.
“I used to swear my grandfather was like Rhett Butler—tall, like maybe 6’ 5”, light skinned, with a mustache. He was a calm person, very dignified. Had a little wry sense of humor. He was a role model for me until the day he died.”
The family was very proud of the fact that Lewis worked in Parker’s Bookstore. Floyd explained that, because in his day, “a black man could not approach a white woman to give her change or touch her in any direct way,” he had to work in the back of the store, but any job that wasn’t field labor was “prestigious” because “he went to work neat and clean and came home neat and clean and dealt with a ‘higher class’ of white people.”
Today, the granddaughter of the man whose own grandmother was white but who could not serve white women in a store, has a master’s degree in psychology. As a trained psychologist, she says, “I think of little things they used to tell me, and I try to look back at their world. Nelson and Grandmother came from a world grounded in slavery, in racism, and yet they pushed all that aside to love each other. What did that take back then? I always think about what a heroic couple they were. I think, what a love story. They left a beautiful legacy of love, faith and education that we don’t want to lose.”
A life-long career as a therapist has led Floyd to a desire to work with the homeless. One cannot help but wonder what hearts and minds may be healed in our community today by the great-great granddaughter of Nelson Tillis and Ellen Summerall who, across seemingly impassable racial barriers, joined hearts and hands one hundred and fifty years ago.
As always, William Shakespeare said it best:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.