Florida’s African-American Memorials
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Their names may not have made it into some history books, but many Florida civil rights leaders and trailblazers of color are memorialized throughout the state. Florida’s black heritage dates back to 16th century explorations and the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565.
Here are seven notable sites worth visiting to learn more about famous African-Americans in Florida and their contributions to the state’s rich history.
640 Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Blvd., on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University, Daytona Beach
Walk in the steps of the civil rights leader known as the “First Lady of Negro America.” The daughter of slaves, Bethune founded a university and served as four-time presidential advisor. Her 1904 home, registered as a U.S. National Historic Landmark, is now a museum that documents her life and the visits of such notables as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche. Tours are free Monday-Friday.
Zora Neale Hurston’s Grave
17th Street and Avenue South, Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery, Fort Pierce
Her literary genius wasn’t recognized until after her death, but the resting place of the noted anthropologist, writer and Harlem Renaissance figure was finally memorialized in 1973, when American novelist Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”) and scholar Charlotte Hunt found and marked the grave. Hurston spent her last days nearly penniless in the nearby St. Lucie Welfare Home. After she died in 1960, the writer best known for her masterwork novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was buried in a weed-choked, segregated grave. The spot is now marked by Dust Track Heritage Marker 4 and the epitaph, “Genius of the South.”
3803 E. Osborne Ave., Tampa
Clarence Fort was the 21-year-old president of the Tampa NAACP Youth Council in 1960, when he organized and participated in the city’s first lunch counter sit-ins in the Woolworth Department store. After a week of the non-violent sit-ins, Tampa’s then-Mayor Julian Lane appointed a biracial committee to discuss segregation issues and, by September 1960, the city’s lunch counters were integrated. Fort also led the initiative to integrate the workforce of Tampa Transit Lines and later, as a Trailways Bus Co. employee, became Florida’s first African-American long-distance bus driver. He spent 20 years as a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy. On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the city honored Fort by dedicating the public park and the half-mile fitness trail that runs through it in his name. He still lives in Tampa.
210 E. Zaragoza St., Seville Square Historic District, Pensacola
One of the oldest houses in Pensacola was owned by a “free woman of color” who made her mark in real estate. Legend has it that Julee Panton purchased the freedom of slaves and helped them start new lives as free men and women. Her simple, wood-frame house, built around 1805, is the only surviving Pensacola home reminiscent of the Creole cottages of the French Quarter in New Orleans. It now houses an exhibit on black history in West Florida, with visiting hours Monday-Saturday.
John G. Riley Center ~ Florida Memory
419 E. Jefferson St., Tallahassee
He was born a slave in 1857 and died a millionaire in 1954. Riley was a civic leader and principal of Lincoln Academy, one of three freedmen schools in Florida that provided secondary instruction for former slaves and their descendants. He also served as Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Florida, a fraternal organization. His 1895 house is the last physical evidence of a thriving middle-class African-American community that existed in downtown Tallahassee at the turn of the 20th century. The wood-frame house has been a museum since 1995.
5550 Overseas Hwy., Marathon
Also known as the “Bahamian House,” this 1903 home on the site of the Crane Point Museum & Nature Center is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest house in the Keys outside of Key West. George and Olivia lived here after sailing from the Bahamas in the 1890s. Built by George, their home was constructed from concrete-like material made of burned conch and other shells. Working as a turtler and sponger, George also made charcoal from buttonwood and the couple planted root vegetables, pigeon peas and fruit trees on their 32 acres. Sailing to Key West to sell their wares, the two were successful enough to attract other Bahamians to the area, earning it the nickname “Adderly Town.” Overlooking Florida Bay, the site also features 1½ miles of nature trails, a Museum of Natural History, a Wild Bird Center and kayak tours.
511 W. South St., Orlando
One of Orlando’s first black doctors, William Monroe Wells built a hotel in 1921 for African-Americans barred from Florida’s segregated hotels. Famous visitors included Ella Fitzgerald, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson. Next to the hotel, Wells built the South Street Casino, one of the most popular venues for African-Americans in the South. The casino also had a basketball court and skating rink for young adults during the day. Now housing memorabilia and African art from Orlando’s black community, the museum includes a 1930s period hotel guestroom with authentic furniture, beading and decorations. It was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Learn more: Discover more than 140 places that reflect African-Americans’ significance to the history of Florida on The Florida Black Heritage Trail, published by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources.