Influential African-American Figures in Florida
By Dalia Colón
From civil rights and education to sports and the arts, African-Americans have influenced every sphere of life in Florida. Here are some of the Sunshine State’s brightest lights and where you can learn more about them.
John Gilmore Riley (1857–1954)
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Smokey Hollow was a thriving African-American community just east of Tallahassee. But after expansion of Apalachee Parkway, by 1978 only two black-owned houses remained. One of them belonged to Riley, a local educator and civic leader. Today, it tells the story of Tallahassee’s changing demographics as the John G. Riley Center/Museum for African American History and Culture, which is a Smithsonian Museum. Through photos, memorabilia, lectures and reenactments, the Riley Center brings Florida’s black history to life.
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)
The novelist, poet, newspaperman, lawyer and civil rights activist had another title, too: Jacksonville native. One of Johnson’s most celebrated works was his 1899 poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which his brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson, set to music. The song became known as the “Negro National Anthem” and is sung at the opening of many African-American events to this day. At Jacksonville’s historic Ritz Theatre and Museum, you can watch animatronic likenesses of the brothers explaining the story behind the African-American music. You can also read historical markers at Johnson’s birthsite, which has been designated Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park.
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955)
Born to former slaves, the South Carolina native went on to become a world-renowned teacher, civil rights leader and advisor to five U.S. presidents. In 1904 with five students and a $1.50 budget, Bethune opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. Today, the coed HBCU in Daytona Beach houses six buildings that make up the Bethune-Cookman Historic District. Tour the house where Bethune spent the second half of her life, hosting the likes of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson. You can also catch a concert or play at her namesake Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
The author, best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is the pride of Eatonville, the Central Florida city where she grew up that’s also the nation’s first incorporated African-American town. Experience Eatonville through Hurston’s eyes with a visit to the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, which showcases the work of emerging and established famous black artists. In the winter, don’t miss the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, a multi-day celebration that includes theatrical performances, museum exhibitions, public talks, an outdoor arts festival and more.
Augusta Savage (1892–1962)
The sculptor carved out her place in history as a Harlem Renaissance artist, educator and activist. Born in North Florida’s Clay County (fittingly enough), Savage got her start molding figures from the red clay soil of her native Green Cove Springs. Check out one of Savage’s rare bronze sculptures, The Diving Boy, on permanent display at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville.
Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen (1911–1995)
The Tampa native attended nursing school before pursuing an acting career. Best known for her role as the maid Prissy in Gone with the Wind, McQueen went on to hold a variety of jobs including restaurateur, radio host and more. Gone with the Wind remains in heavy rotation at local historic theaters; try to catch a showing at Tampa Theatre or the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.
Jackie Robinson (1919–1972)
The baseball legend cemented his place in history when he became the first African-American athlete to play for a Major League team. But before he broke the Major League color barrier, Robinson played in a Daytona Beach exhibition game on the roster of the Montreal Royals, a AAA team in the Dodgers’ organization. This was the first time Robinson played in an exhibition game, and eventually the Dodgers moved their spring training to Daytona Beach. Today, you can catch the Minor League Daytona Tortugas or Bethune-Cookman Wildcats playing a game at the aptly named Jackie Robinson Ballpark.
Lillette Jenkins-Wisner (b. 1924)
She played piano for Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. Duke Ellington christened her the “Queen of the Keys.” And Nat King Cole wrote a song for her called simply Lillette. On top of all this, the concert pianist and her husband, Bud Harris, operated the first black-owned nightclub in Reno, Nevada, in the 1940s. Today, Her Majesty is still going strong well into her 90s and lives in Orlando. And while she gave her farewell performance in Clearwater in 2015, you can see a traveling stage production of Lillette’s Rhythm Club, a musical written by her daughter Adrienne Lillette Harris in which contemporary pianist Jade Simmons embodies Jenkins-Wisner in her Harlem heyday.
Sidney Poitier (b. 1927)
The trailblazing thespian native broke ground in 1964, when he became the first black man to win the Academy Award for best actor, for his performance in Lilies of the Field. Born in Miami to Bahamian parents, Poitier also starred in classics like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; To Sir, with Love; and countless other films. Poitier blazed a trail for silver screen talents like Oscar winner Halle Berry and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, who are just some of the stars who’ve made appearances at the annual American Black Film Festival in Miami Beach. Check out the event in June to see up-and-coming talent, attend master classes, sit in on celebrity talks and screen films.
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley (1928–1975)
The saxophonist shared the stage with jazz giants like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But in the 1940s and ‘50s, students at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale knew the Tampa native simply as their band director, Mr. Adderley. Today, the former school building is the Old Dillard Museum, which holds a collection of photos and memorabilia from the musician and sponsors the annual Cannonball Jazz Series.
George “Buster” Cooper (1929–2016)
The jazz trombonist spent a decade touring with Duke Ellington, but he always made time for his hometown of St. Petersburg. In his latter years, Cooper played regular sets at The Garden Restaurant downtown. While the restaurant is permanently closed, you can hear St. Pete’s top talents playing jazz at the Palladium. Hang around after their set, and you can probably coax a few Buster Cooper stories from fellow musicians who knew him well. Also pencil in the annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday, a four-day music festival that showcases local, national and international talents.
Ray Charles (1930–2004)
The legendary musician may have had his birthplace of Georgia on his mind, but his Florida upbringing gave the Sunshine State a special place in his heart. Visit the small North Florida town of Greenville, where you can tour Charles’s restored childhood home and pose with a statue in the musician’s likeness.
Clarence Fort (b. 1938)
In 1960, Fort was president of the NAACP’s Youth Council in Tampa, where he organized the city’s first lunch counter sit-ins at the Woolworth Department store on Franklin Street. This nonviolent protest led to Tampa’s lunch counters being integrated later that year. Fort also helped integrate Florida’s theaters and bus service before serving as a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy. You can think of Fort as you stroll through the East Tampa park that’s his namesake, the Clarence Fort Freedom Trail.
Alfred “Freddie” Hair: (1941–1970)
In the early 1950s, Fort Pierce artist A.E. "Bean" Backus taught Hair to paint landscapes. Hair, in turn, went on to train other black artists. While the collective of more than two-dozen painters were kept out of segregated galleries, they earned a living selling their Florida landscapes and wildlife scenes on the roadside. Although Hair’s life was cut short when he was shot at a bar, the legacy of the so-called Florida Highwaymen lives on. Visit the A.E. Backus Gallery and Museum in Fort Pierce to see work by the Highwaymen and Backus, who inspired them.
Peggy Quince (b. 1941)
All rise for this retired Florida Supreme Court chief justice—the first black woman to hold the title. After earning her B.S. and J.D. degrees, the Virginia native moved to Florida and opened a law office in Bradenton in 1978. She served on Florida’s Supreme Court for two decades, retiring in 2008. To learn more about the role of chief justice, visit the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. Guests can observe oral arguments, participate in educational programs and take a tour.
Angela Bassett (b. 1958)
Before she played characters like the matriarch of Wakanda in Black Panther and Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It?, the actor had another role: student at St. Petersburg’s Boca Ciega High School. To see rising stars from Bassett’s alma mater, check out a production by the Boca Ciega Drama Club.
Emmitt Smith (b. 1969)
The Pensacola native is respected as one of the Southeastern Conference’s greatest running backs for his college career with the University of Florida Gators. In 1990, the Dallas Cowboys selected Smith as a first-round draft pick, and he was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. Three years later, he was crowned the NFL’s MVP. The College and Pro Football Hall of Famer also has moves off the field, winning season 3 of Dancing with the Stars. In 2006, Smith was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. Much of the hall’s memorabilia is on display at the Central Florida Visitors & Convention Bureau in Davenport.
Maya Rudolph (b.1972)
The SNL alum was born in Gainesville to singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton and composer Richard Rudolph. Although Rudolph moved to California at a young age, you can check out Gainesville’s up-and-coming improv talent in troupes like Gainesville Improv Guild and the University of Florida’s Theatre Strike Force.
Eric Darius (b. 1982)
The saxophonist, who grew up in Tampa, made a name for himself at a young age with his contemporary jazz music. In 2018, the Billboard chart-topper launched his own record label, SagiDarius Music, expanding his repertoire to include a blend of jazz, R&B, reggae and other genres. While Darius now lives in Los Angeles, he frequently visits Tampa Bay for concerts, CD release parties and other appearances. He’s also been known to turn up on stage at the annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday.