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South Florida Sun Sentinel

Who were Lauderdale, Broward, Sistrunk? Florida authors series will look at Fort Lauderdale’s evolution and personalities

By Lois K. Solomon, South Florida Sun-Sentinel,

John Bailey, author of "A New River Runs Through It," is photographed by the New River in Fort Lauderdale. Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS

It’s hard to believe, but a comprehensive history of Fort Lauderdale hasn’t been updated in book form in several decades.

Those decades have been quite newsworthy, so there’s a lot to catch up on: the multiplication of high-rise condos; the revitalization of the downtown; a rise in the homeless population; the arrival of Brightline train service; the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Bailey, 86, a Fort Lauderdale High School graduate, decided the city’s story needed a fresh perspective. He’ll sign copies of his book, “A New River Runs Through It: A History of Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” on March 18, as part of History Fort Lauderdale ’s monthly “Florida Scribes & Stories” series, which introduces local authors and their books to literary and history enthusiasts. The series began last fall, having grown out of a virtual “Meet the Author” series during the pandemic.

Although Bailey spent most of his career as a leather merchant, he had written several books on the history of New Jersey and decided he had the time and enthusiasm in retirement to write a definitive chronicle of the city where he was raised and still lives half the year.

Bailey, a Navy and Vietnam veteran who studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, began his work by leafing through documents belonging to his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who had saved years of brochures, books and clippings from the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale News. He also examined historical archives and read books about the city’s founding families.

Bailey decided to pepper his book with his own experiences growing up, including moving to the city in 1946 from New Jersey and idolizing the jazz band at Fort Lauderdale’s former Black high school, Dillard. He remembers wishing he could attend the school, so he could learn under Dillard’s charismatic bandmaster, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

“I desperately wanted to be in that band, but it was an all Black school,” Bailey wrote. “Been firmly against racism and segregation ever since.”

It took him three years to write his detailed tome.

“What’s different about this book is it’s a chronology,” said Patricia Zeiler, executive director of History Fort Lauderdale. “You can look up a single thing that you need. It will be very helpful to researchers.”

Here are some fascinating tidbits Bailey, who splits his time between Fort Lauderdale and Cape May, N.J., recounts about city names and sites that we see all the time but most likely think little about in their historical context.

  • Major William Lauderdale was asked by his friend, President Andrew Jackson, to come out of retirement and build a fort in southeast Florida as protection against the Seminole Indians. Lauderdale arrived and lived on the New River for just one month in 1838 before returning to his home in Tennessee.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte Broward , a river pilot and ship captain, was governor of Florida from 1905 to 1909. He was a pioneer in the draining of the Everglades.
  • Dr. James Franklin Sistrunk, a Black “country doctor,” is credited with delivering 5,000 babies and in 1938, facing segregation rules, cofounded Broward County’s first medical facility for Blacks, Provident Hospital. He died in 1966.
  • The first skyscraper in the city arrived in 1972 : the 28-story Landmark Bank building at 100 SE Third Ave. It was the tallest building in Broward for 12 years; now it’s the seventh.

Bailey said his goal was to show how quickly the city evolved from a coarse backwater to a national destination.

“I want people to have an understanding of how Fort Lauderdale developed into a financial and business center from humble beginnings,” he said. “In one century, it went from a really rough place with nothing to a great metropolis.”

If you go

WHAT: Book signing and meet-and-greet session with John Bailey, author of “A New River Runs Through It: A History of Fort Lauderdale, Florida”

WHEN: 1-3 p.m. Saturday, March 18

WHERE : New River Inn History Museum, 231 SW Second Ave., Fort Lauderdale

COST: Free

INFORMATION: 954-463-4431;

COMING UP: Author H.J. Zeger, with “The Help of Angels,” 6-8 p.m. Monday, April 17

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