On Sept. 11, 1961, the first two black students to enroll in a white public school began classes at Lake Worth High School, making Palm Beach County the fourth in the state to begin integration. Later that day, Palm Beach Junior college admitted its first black student. The Palm Beach Post declared that “integration came quietly and smoothly” to the schools.
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Question: Who was the first resident of what’s now Palm Beach County?
Answer: The leading candidate is a mysterious hermit named Augustus Oswald Lang. We know the German immigrant was here as early as the 1860s, having moved from Fort Pierce, perhaps to avoid being drafted into the Confederate army.
Palm Beach Inlet, also called Lake Worth Inlet, was originally named Lang’s Inlet. He’d dug a narrow trench through the beach ridge in the early 1860s that lowered the lake to sea level.
Lang then got a job as assistant keeper of the Jupiter Lighthouse.
On Aug. 15, 1861, the 30-year old, backed by other Confederate loyalists, ordered his boss, J.F. Papy, to surrender the lighting mechanism to the house, built in 1860 on what was then Confederate soil.
The idea was to stymie Union ships pursuing blockade runners, who already knew the coast.
Papy, loyal to his federal paycheck and his mission to keep boaters safe, said no, but was finally pressured into relinquishing the light mechanism.
Because it was so valuable, Lang and his cohorts didn’t destroy it; they just hid it. On June 28, 1866, the lighthouse was relighted, and except for hurricanes and a brief electrical problem in the late 1980s, it didn’t go dark again until a 1999 renovation.
Lang eventually enlisted in the Confederate army in January 1862 but deserted a year and a half later. In 1866, two settlers from what’s now Miami found him living in what’s today Palm Beach.
Lang moved around 1867 to the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, where he worked with plants and raised hogs and cows.
He later married the 15-year-old daughter of the only other family in the area. But two months before his only child was born, three men showed up, asking him to take them up the river to find their runaway horses. Once they rounded the bend, they shot Lang dead. His body never was found.
One of the killers later was shot. The other two confessed to stuffing his corpse in an alligator crawl. He said the three had planned to use Lang’s cleared property for their cattle.
Update: Our Aug. 12 column on Pearl City prompted West Palm Beach real estate broker Linda Cullen to plan a visit. But she couldn’t find the roads on a map. Boca Raton Historical Society archivist Sue Gillis to the rescue: Sapphire is Northeast 10th Street. Ruby is Northeast 11th Street. Pearl is Northeast 12th Street east of Dixie Highway and west of Federal Highway. Thanks, Sue. Linda reports the streets show both names.
Sources: Palm Beach Post archives and James D. Snyder’s “A Light in the Wilderness.”