Lawrence was born in Kenansville, Florida, on November 8, 1891, to former Georgia slave Tom Silas and his wife Elizabeth, the sixth of thirteen children. Because it was a rural area, Tom built a school and hired a teacher so his children could receive an education.
Upon Tom’s death in 1905, Lawrence, aged fourteen, took over his father’s estate of 160 acres. Having learned the cattle business from his father, Lawrence worked for other ranchers, saving what he earned, enabling him to buy his own cattle and land.
Lawrence had a skill for knowing what to do for every kind of sickness a cow could have. Another unique talent was his ability to sit on a corral gate as a herd ran past and being able to tell you how many cattle had passed. At calving time, he could “mammy up” every mother cow with her own calf by the color or curl of the hair or set of a shoulder, no matter how large the herd.
He was featured in the 1942 “Saturday Evening Post” article “Lawrence of the River” by Zora Neale Hurston, and was quoted as saying “I’ll be a cowman as long as I live. I might even die out on the range with a cigar in my mouth. Wouldn’t be nothing wrong with that.” The day he suffered a stroke he had spent the morning herding cattle at his ranch.
Lawrence received honors from Kissimmee High School, cattlemen’s groups, black educators and was recognized by President Harry S. Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. He once saved a child from drowning in Mill Slough by riding his horse into the water and bringing the child to land.
His wife Sarah, a native of New Orleans, passed away in 1972. Lawrence followed her two years later on July 16, 1974. Lawrence and Sarah had a daughter, Juanita M., and an adopted daughter, Dorothy.
In 2017, Lawrence was the first African American featured at the Osceola County Historical Society Dine with Departed event in the historic Rose Hill Cemetery, Kissimmee, Florida.
Sources: “Touched by the Sun” by Stuart B. McIver; “Lawrence of the River” by Zora Neale Hurston; “Osceola Sun” February 24, 1972, November 8, 1973; “St. Cloud News” July 18, 1974