David Levy Yulee – ‘The Florida Fire Eater’

Moses Levy, an observant Jew, took great pride in 1845 when his son David was elected as America’s first Jewish U.S. Senator. It was short lived. It all started when Rachel Levy, a young English Jewess, was captured by Moroccan pirates and sold to a prominent Muslim named Jacoub ibn Youli, who added her to his harem. A pregnant Rachel escaped and fled to England in 1781, where she gave birth to a son, Moses Levy. Moses married a Jewish woman and in 1810, they had a son David, Florida’s future Senator. Moses brought his family to America and purchased 50,000 acres of land near Jacksonville, Florida, intending to create a homeland for Jewish settlers fleeing oppression. His Zionistic vision failed; however, he became a successful businessman and spoke out in favor of emancipating and educating slaves to achieve equality.

David chose politics and became a delegate to Congress. Nick-named the “Fire Eater” for his passionate oratory, David, in 1845, successfully fought to bring Florida into the Union. In 1846, U.S. Senator David Levy married Nannie C. Wickliffe, who, unhappy with David’s religion, did not want to be known as Mrs. Levy. According to the American Jewish Historical Society, David Levy then assumed the name Yulee, an approximation of the name of his Muslim grandfather and also agreed to raise their children Christian. Moses, distraught over David’s denigration of their family heritage, was also displeased with David’s political views, namely, his advocacy of slave ownership rights and his belief that black’s constituted an inferior race. David rejected his father’s views, renounced Judaism and became a devout Christian.

David, defeated in his Senate re-election in 1851, was re-elected in 1855. He favored secession, resigned his Senate seat in 1861 and joined the Confederate Congress during the Civil War. After the war, Yulee promoted construction of Florida’s cross-state railroad and was called the “Father of Florida’s railroads.” Ironically, Levy County and the City of Yulee in Nassau County were both named after David, however, Moses “proved a visionary in predicting that Florida would one day make an excellent home for Diaspora Jews.”

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