The tenth Governor of Florida, Ossian Bingley Hart was the first to be born in the state on January 17, 1821, in Jacksonville. He was the son of Isaiah and Nancy Hart. His father was one of the founders of Jacksonville and became one of the largest slaveholders. Ossian was raised on his father’s plantation along the St. Johns River and was a strong supporter of the freed blacks during the early years after the Civil War.
His parents were wealthy and since there were no colleges in Florida, they sent him to South Carolina for his education. After he finished college, he returned to the family plantation, where he read law books in his father’s office and passed the bar examination.
While she was on a vacation in Jacksonville, he met Catherine Smith Campbell, a resident of Newark, New Jersey. They married on October 3, 1843, in Newark and returned to Florida settling on a farm near Fort Pierce. She went by “Kate,” and was smart and self-reliant. He would come to depend on her throughout their marriage. Never having any children, they would often include the needy children of family and friends in their home.
In 1843, he became a founding member of the St. Lucie County Board of Commissioners. Then in 1845, he became the Florida State Representative for the first legislative session after statehood for St. Lucie County. With few white males in the area, he won his election by one vote: six for Hart, five for another, and one for a resident of Mosquito County, later to be known as Orange County. With the same ten voters, the following year, he lost the election by one vote.
Even though he was only there for one session, he successfully sponsored the Married Women’s Property Act, protecting a woman’s private inheritance or dowry from her husband’s debtors. This became his “claim to fame.” Many felt the idea might have been Kate’s who heard of these reforms from New York’s early feminists. Then again, there is a theory he may have been motivated by the fact his parents’ marriage was rancorous, despite having eight children. His mother, a strict Methodist watched his father enjoy drinking and gambling as well as impregnating some of their slaves. Even still, the men of Jacksonville elected Isaiah Hart as a senator to the same legislative session his son served in the House.
While Ossian was in Tallahassee, Kate ran their Indian River homestead, until the area was hit by a hurricane that devasted the area in October 1846. Soon thereafter, they moved to Key West. Even though the storm had been just as destructive there, sixteen people took refuge at the lighthouse, but only the lighthouse-keeper Barbara Mabrity and one of her children survived after the lighthouse collapsed into the water. Key West began to boom once the federal government started rebuilding it and military installations in the area. In 1840 there were 688 residents, by 1850 the population rose to 2,645, making it the largest city in Florida.
Ossian built a law practice in Key West that would get him elected as a prosecutor for the Southern Judicial District. The District ran as far north as Levy County (north of Tampa). Soon he was spending most of his time in Tampa as the district prosecutor, while Kate lived in Key West and New Jersey. After he lost reelection, his focus was on promoting a railroad between Jacksonville and Tampa. In 1856, when the yellow fever epidemic hit Key West, Kate join him in Tampa permanently.
With dark-skinned people being the majority in Key West, race relations were more amicable, and the Harts were unaware of the issues building towards the Civil War. Once settle in Tampa which had about 800 residents, army officers from the North exposed them to the conflicts. Ossian unlike most Southerners supported the Union and joined the new Republican Party. He was strongly affected when his client “Adam,” a slave was lynched when men broke into the Tampa jail after the Florida Supreme Court declared his conviction a mistrial.
At the time, Florida’s government was solidly Southern and when the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860, his name wasn’t on the ballot. After Florida seceded from the Union and prior the Lincoln’s April inauguration, Hart later wrote:
“I foresaw at the beginning of the rebellion that the ordinance of secession was the death knell of slavery, and that with four million of freedmen the subject of equal rights could not be kept out of sight. I knew that they would have the right to the ballot for all and I told our people so.”
During the Civil War, Ossian dropped out of public life and spent his time going back and forth between Jacksonville and Tampa. Both towns had been occupied by the Union several times, and ultimately abandoned. Kate spent most of her time in Tampa overseeing the resettlement of some of the slaves in Hart’s family estate. Isaiah Hart, Ossian’s father died early in the war, leaving a large portion of his 2,000-acre plantation, several homes, and business, plus 53 slaves to his longtime mistress and slave Amy Hickman. His father had disinherited his eldest son, which made Ossian’s job as estate manager complicated, but he did carry out his father’s intent.
In December of 1865, after the end of the war, the Harts moved from Tampa to Jacksonville permanently. There were a couple of motivating factors for the move after he lost his bid for the legislature. The county’s population consisted mostly of former rebels and he did his best to prevent them from voting which left them feeling rejected in Tampa. Secondly, his obligations to his brother Dan who died after being imprisoned for shooting a Union soldier.
In Jacksonville, he actively worked for the Freedman’s Bureau helping to resettle former slaves and register black men as voters. He became the chairman of the Republican Party in Florida and mayor of Jacksonville by late 1867. He lost his bid to the United States Senate after Florida was readmitted to the Union in 1868. As a consolation prize, for the next four years, he held one of the three seats on the newly re-constituted Florida Supreme Court.
Black voters in 1872 led the campaign for Hart to be the Republican nominee for governor. Peter W. Bryant, an African American leader in Hillsborough County nominated him at the state Republican convention. At the time, both black and white delegates were favoring another white man. It is reported that:
Many of the Hart men, mostly colored, became frantic. They rushed about the room, mounted chairs, tables, desks, and everything else that would elevate them, and yelled, and bawled, and shouted, and swore they would not submit… they wanted Hart and intended to have him.
After the other candidate withdrew, Hart accepted the nomination and said:
“The great Republican party to be the most liberal, wisely patriotic, and safely progressive party that we have ever had.”
The race was close and not clear until mid-December, but with many Democrats disenfranchised because of their status as former Confederates, the all-male electorate chose Hart.
During his inauguration speech in 1873, he condemned the “extravagance, venality, and neglect” in recent governments, promising only to appoint “diligent and honest” men. The “An Act to Protect all Citizens of the State of Florida in their Civil Rights” was his first law. The law did not include “all citizens,” as women, both black and white were unequal under the law. It did provide some legal protections for former slaves.
Hart in 1874 emphasized education in his message to the legislature:
“Florida has cause to rejoice greatly that we now have numerous free public schools…open to all the children of the State alike. To a large majority of the people who never saw such a thing before reconstruction, this greatly blessed fact is ever new and delightful.”
Due to health problems that began while he was campaigning for governor, Ossian Hart passed away on March 18, 1874, at the age of 53. Back then, there were no pensions for wives and with the family losing much of its wealth during the 1873 depression, a fire, and foreclosed mortgage, Kate lost the Jacksonville home. Using her Republican connections and needing income, she got a presidential appointment as postmaster of Kissimmee in 1883 and held the position until 1886. At the same time, she ran a stationery shop. While visiting family in New Jersey, she passed away at the age of 72. Her body was returned to Florida and she is buried with Ossian’s at Jacksonville’s Old City Cemetery.