Bokey is both a place AND a state of mind

If you live in or near Sanford, Fla. you’ve probably heard the term “Bokey” (if you haven’t, the word rhymes with “low key”). It’s Sanford’s unofficial nickname, like O-Town for Orlando or Hotlanta for Atlanta.

But why is Sanford called Bokey?

bokey logo - USEI don’t have a definitive answer, but I have a theory. So does everyone else. Francis Oliver, a life-long Sanford resident and founder of the Goldsboro Museum, probably has the most accurate answer, which I’ll explain in a minute.

I think the one thing most people agree on is that the word originated in the black community. White baby boomers never heard the word growing up in Sanford, though Bokey appears to have been used at least since the 1920s.

I first heard the term shortly after I moved to town in the late 1990s to become  the editor of the Sanford Herald. Marva Hawkins, one of the columnists for the Herald, was talking to someone else about a person who no longer lived in Sanford. “Oh yeah, he grew up in Bokey,” she said.

I was fascinated by the word, but Marva could not give me an explanation of how it came about.  At first. the only people I heard use the term were older blacks of Marva’s generation. They used it in reference to Sanford. Actually, they used it specifically to refer to Goldsboro, the historic black neighborhood that at one time was its own city before Sanford annexed it in the early 1900s.

Goldsboro had its own mayor and goverment, and if not for being annexed, Goldsboro today would be one of the oldest black-established cities in America. 

Why would Sanford annex Goldsboro? Land, of course! Sanford Mayor Forrest Lake and the city fathers wanted to expand Sanford for new development. Goldsboro stood between the city and the land they wanted to develop, so they just annexed the smaller town. But that’s a story for another time.

My best guess is that the word Bokey began as a way for residents of Goldsboro to distinguish their community apart from Sanford, since they lost their identity when Goldsboro was annexed.

But that is just my theory. I have no hard proof to back that up. Even if I did, I could not explain why the word Bokey was chosen over some other word.

I understand that a few years ago a Seminole State College professor was claiming that in the Sanford’s early days the city was referred to as “Boat Key,” which later was shortened to Bokey. True, Sanford’s location on the St. Johns River made it a busy inland commercial port, but only a rube would confuse Sanford – which is clearly part of the mainland – with a “reef or small low island,” which is the definition of key, e.g. Key Largo, Big Pine Key or Cedar Key. I’m not buying his nonsensical explanation.

Long-time resident Valada Parker Flewellyn says Bokey is an endearing term for Sanford first used by migrant workers who traveled north picking fruit and vegetables.

Again not sure why the word was chosen, but she did write a poem called “Bokey [Bo-Key]” which appeared in the book “African Americans of Sanford,” published by Flewellyn and the Sanford Historical Society.

The most likely source of the origin of Bokey comes from Ms. Francis, founder of the Goldsboro Historical Museum (Website), . She agrees  the term Bokey originated from migrant workers. Beginning in the early 1900s, blacks across the South began migrating north for jobs working on farms and factories.

“Some men and women would hop freight trains from points all over Florida to Sanford,” Oliver writes on the museum’s web site. “Sanford was a major stop for migrant workers coming from Jamaica and Florida southern cities, and this was because of its full service train station. The station was located in Goldsboro on 8th and Poplar Ave, which is now Coastline Park, named after the Seaboard Coastline Station.

“When the train was heading north and stopped, the Caboose would be somewhere near 13 Street in Goldsboro,” she continues. “At that time the tracks ran through the heart of Goldsboro to the station.

“I was told the last cab on each train going north was called ‘Bo-Key’ and if you were ‘Hobo’ riding  you wanted that cab to get off the train in Sanford,” Oliver writes. “The word went out that ‘Bo-Key’ would take you to Sanford and put you off in Goldsboro.

“So my definition of Bo-key as it relates to Sanford means ‘Going Home’ whether it’s by car, truck, train, or bus,” Oliver concludes.

With words, it’s always hard to nail down an exact origin, but I think Ms. Francis is closest to the truth.

Whatever the origin of Bokey, at some point the word got co-opted in a negative way to mean “ghetto” or “unclean” or “low-class.” Again, I don’t know where or why this meaning was conceived, but I first heard it used in a negative way by people who did not live in Sanford. That pissed me off. I love Sanford. It’s my hometown. I began using Bokey to in a positive way to reclaim the word.

When I started this website, I called it The Bokey because that’s what it is about. I also wanted to further reclaim the word from those haters who don’t have anything positive to say about Sanford. But I knew I had to be able to explain Bokey beyond the multiple theories everyone has developed. So I created my own definition for the word, which is similar to Francis Oliver’s, though I didn’t know it at the time. My definition is:

Bokey is both a place AND a state of mind. It’s where you feel most comfortable. Bokey is the place you call home, whether you’ve lived there all your life or just visit infrequently.

That’s why Sanford is Bokey. Feel free to spead the word.

– by Dan Ping

Below are some comments taken from The Bokey’s Facebook page. Feel free to join the discussion there.

Justin Marshall – I was told bob mckey construction build most of the homes around town in the 70s and 80s and someone said they should rename sanford to bokey.

Sab DL Ortiz – The Bob Mckey explanation sounds like it’s about 30 years too late.

I was told about the Boat Key origin as a high school student at Seminole in the mid 90’s (by Mr. Brown, who grew up in Goldsboro) and it’s the one I share with when asked about our town’s nickname.

Although our marina island is clearly not a Key, I feel like geographical accuracy wasn’t necessarily of concern or cause for the nickname and it makes the most historical sense to me.

Celeste De St AubinI agree with ur assessment Sab. It makes the most sense…the St Johns is a huge part of why the town began there.

The Bokey – Sab DL Ortiz makes a good argument: Boat Key to Bokey makes sense as to how that exact word came about. The thing I struggle with is it doesn’t explain why Bokey was used specially for Goldsboro until recent history.

The term Boat Key – for which there is little historical proof was ever used – would have had to come about during Sanford’s heyday as a commercial port, which was prior to 1930. Because of Jim Crow segregation, there would have been little reason at the time – historically, economically or socially – to refer to Goldsboro by a nickname used for the waterfront.

But who knows? That’s the wonderful thing about Bokey – it’s mysterious and we each bring our own definition to it.

Thanks for the comments!

Francis OliverThat is our Bo-key, maybe there are two Bo-keys. Bo-key Goldsboro and Bo-key Sanford. All my life I have know Goldsboro to be Bo-key, my family came to Sanford when I was 5years old, I am 72 now. To Bo-key is Goldsboro. We should have a Bo-key get acquainted Party. You tell your Bo-key stories(Sanford) and we tell our Bo-key stories (Goldsboro). We should pass the stories down to the next generation, and we do have some stories.

Sheena Rena Fort I’m a Sanfordite and for 33 years African Americans from my neck of the woods ( Midway) referred to Sanford as Bokey aka the boondocks….Recently, I’ve noticed the name becoming more popular among other races. Quite frankly I don’t care where it originated; all I care is that people are talking “positively” about Sanford!!! Gotta love Bokey baby!!!

The BokeyAmen Sheena Rena Fort! I like to know the origin of words because I’m a geek like that, but you’re 100% correct – talking positively about Sanford is the most important thing. And I agree with Francis Oliver, all of Bokey needs to get together.

Cindy PhilemonThis side does not represent Bokey. Goldsboro is Bokey you all are using this to take the attention off of us and to focus more on the downtown area. Our City was stolen from us now apart of our roots. Bokey is our story. It may not make sense to you all because you have not experienced a lot of hardships and struggles as we have as a community but one thing we do have and that is eachother. Sanford is very much apart of us even though we were forced to unite with Sanford. Now it is time for Sanford to embrace Goldsboro. You all are now apart of us as we are apart of you so lets make the best of it and love as a City on one accord. Our story has emerged with Sanford we just no longer want to be ignored.

The BokeyI agree Ms. Philemon, we all need to embrace each other and make our city better. And I’m working to get more stories from all over the city. I’m just a one man-show at the moment. Be patient with me, and if you have story ideas, let me know.

Lynn Covington CullumI am a white Sanford native, born in 1955. I never heard the term “Bokey” until the late 1980s when I was teaching English at Seminole High and assistant principal LaMarr Richardson and some black students would use the term. When I asked LaMarr why Sanford was being called “Bokey,” he said he didn’t know where the term had originated.

Mike PowersBeing at SHS for 30 years the first time I ever heard it was in the late 90s when Jim Worthington was Football coach. He said at a pep rally when in the playoffs what ever them team that was coming to play us “They ain’t never been to Bokey”.

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