Black History Month Pathfinder Profiles: Nelson Tillis

Nelson Tillis was an African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist and pioneer. He was the first free African-American man to settle in Ft. Myers.

Nelson immediately became essential to the community in Ft. Myers. He worked as a fisherman, farmer and a fishing guide. He hauled the building materials used to construct some of the first buildings in Ft. Myers including the courthouse. Since Tillis lived next door to Thomas Edison the two went fishing together and the Tillis children often played on Thomas Edison’s property.

Nelson Tillis married Zilphie Jane Ellen Summerall, a Caucasian woman from the Carolina’s. Their interracial love was forbidden, but the pair stayed together and had 11 children.

Thanks to Nelson Tillis’ innovation, hard work, and dedication the Tillis family was prosperous. According to the 1885 census, Tilson was in possession of an estimated $2,000 worth of improved land (8 acres) and woodland (100 acres), and $700 worth of oxen, cows, swine and chickens. On August 5, 1890, he was granted, by the homestead act of 1862, 110 acres of land on the north bank of the Caloosahatchee.

The biographical information on Nelson Tillis is sparse, but oral history passed down from family members gives us more insight into what Nelson Tillis was like. According to his great-great granddaughter, Tillis had a love of reading and owned hundreds of books. It was his love of books that led him to hire a tutor for his young children. He built a one-room school house on his property which was the first school for black children in Fort Myers.

Nelson Tillis Blvd in Ft. Myers still bears his name.

The Allen Ellison for Congress campaign salutes Nelson Tillis for forging a new path forward for African-American residents in Ft. Myers.