Florida Rich With African-American History

By | February 10, 2013

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson

– Tiny-little Eatonville, near Orlando, is where in the summer of 1887 citizens established the first town in the nation governed by blacks.

It was more than a century later, when Barack Obama was a brand new senator in Washington, that I took him to Eatonville – for a meeting at a local church. And it was during that trip in 2005 that I first witnessed with my own eyes the future-president’s ascent into political stardom.

The Saturday we visited, about 500 people rose to their feet in a standing ovation worthy of a rock star as Sen. Obama hit the stage in the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. The crowd that day was about a fourth of the town’s entire population.

To this day, I’m so thankful the president was able to come with me to Eatonville. The town is a key part of African-American history in Florida and one of the many places across the state that embody our rich and vibrant cultural heritage.

Indeed, Florida is home to dozens of African-American historical sites – such as the Jackie Robinson Memorial Ball Park, American Beach, Fort Mose, Mary McLeod Bethune House, Daniel “Chappie” James birthplace, and Lincolnville, just to name a few. Some sites have links to notable figures in American history, like, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Wallace Amos.

Dr. King, for example, stayed in Lincolnville while supporting local civil rights movements. That same neighborhood in the city of St. Augustine also was home to the man who taught musician and singer Ray Charles to read music in Braille at the local school for the deaf and blind.

In Tallahassee, you’ll find the John G. Riley Museum for African-American History and Culture. The museum is in a historically black neighborhood known as Smoky Hollow, in the late 19th century home of a local African-American resident. Smoky Hollow was also home to Wallace Amos, the founder of “Famous Amos” cookies.

In Fort Lauderdale, there’s the Old Dillard Museum. The museum was once a segregated school for black children where saxophonist “Cannonball” Adderley directed band. Today, it traces the history of the city’s jazz scene and displays masks, musical instruments and other archival artifacts.

Overtown, in Miami, is now rife with black-owned businesses, historic churches and the Lyric Theater, built in 1913. One of Miami’s oldest neighborhoods, it dates back to the 1890s. For a closer view of many of Miami’s African-American historical sites, Miami-Dade Transit is offering its annual Black History Transit Tour on Feb. 19 and 26. For more info you can visit: http://www.miamidade.gov.

On any given day in Fort Pierce, you might find Florida Highwaymen paintings lined up for sale alongside U.S. Route 1. There’s also the A.E. Backus Museum, with paintings from the famous Florida landscape artist side-by-side with works from many of the African-American youth he taught to paint. Together, Backus and his students founded one of the great schools of art in America, the Indian River School.

From Pensacola to Key West, African-American culture, history and people have played an integral part in the development of modern-day Florida.

In 1990, in fact, the state Legislature created the Study Commission on African-American History to increase public awareness of African-American contributions to Florida. The commission was asked to recommend a way to establish a “Heritage Trail” that identified points of interest in black history that should be preserved and promoted as tourist attractions. The resulting Florida Black Heritage Trail is a microcosm of African-American landmarks and legacies that exist in various locations across the state.

One day, I hope I can bring President Obama back to visit a few more of these places, many of which helped mold our state into what it is today. Meantime, many of the sites and buildings on the Heritage Trail should be “must sees” for residents and tourists, alike.

Bill Nelson is Florida’s senior U.S. senator and a fifth-generation Floridian.