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Preserving local black history a task
By Douglas Kalajian, Palm Beach Post Staff
Saturday, February 1, 2003
The archives of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County are lined with deep-but-narrow boxes. Shelf after shelf of papers and pictures chronicle the ways and mien of scrappy white farmers, pioneer businessmen, wealthy developers.
A researcher would have to squeeze back toward the rear stacks to find the three boxes -- altogether no bigger than an overnight suitcase -- labeled "Black History."
And if that researcher wanted to know more about local black pioneers, he or she would have to dig even deeper: Several black-history collections exist in the county, but most are hard for an outsider to find.
"Black history is so scattered now that you can't find it unless you know what you're looking for, and even then you can't get at private collections unless the people like you," says Robert Hazard, who has a collection of photographs from the Hurricane of 1928 that he recently exhibited at the South Florida Fair.
Hazard is one of the black history proponents who will be at the county commission meeting Tuesday when the historical society asks for permission to house a museum in the to-be-restored 1916 courthouse at Third Street and Dixie Highway.
"We need a central history museum," Hazard says. "Tourists would go there. Downtown workers would go there. We'd have a fantastic advantage in our ability to educate people about black history. Plus, we need the museum to be a resource to (promote) the other tributaries out there with black history collections."
If the historical society gets the county's approval, it will display a permanent African-American history exhibit, says Executive Director Loren Mintz. Black collections would be cataloged and stored in a database, easily accessible to historians 100 years from now.
But getting longtime black residents to donate their memorabilia is a sensitive subject, a problem as old as Palm Beach itself.
Blacks are hesitant to give up their personal belongings, even their family stories, says Hazard, head of the Storm of '28 Memorial Park Coalition Inc., which persuaded the city of West Palm Beach to buy back land at 25th Street and Tamarind, site of a mass grave of 674 blacks who died in the 1928 hurricane.
"African-Americans," he says, "are very concerned about who and what will represent the black community."
Most historical institutions remain in white hands, while many of the artifacts of South Florida's black history remain in family chests or photo albums -- out of sight to historians and researchers.
"There was a feeling that if the black community was to preserve its history, it would have to be done by the black community because it was the only way to ensure a fair turn," says Nick Wynne, executive director of the Florida Historical Society.
But if black families keep their treasures in the attic, researchers can't find them. And if they wait too long, nobody can remember the families' stories.
"Black families hold onto things for sentimental reasons," says Hazard. "There's a story behind these things, but over time, the sentiment becomes more important than the story, and by the third generation, the story is gone."
Black residents, he says, often put this personal feeling before this practical fact: If a story is not written down and archived in a place where a researcher can find it, it's gone -- not just to the family, but to the future.
In Palm Beach County, time is of the essence: The grandchildren of black pioneers who arrived here around the time of Henry Flagler's railroad in 1894 are now in their 70s and 80s.
Laurita Collie Sharpp, 79, comes from a distinguished line of black pioneers in West Palm Beach. Her grandfather, John, arrived in town in 1896. He built a lumber company, ran a couple of bars and built a commercial building that spanned a block along Rosemary Avenue in the mid-1920s. His son, Warren, Laurita's father, was one of the city's first black dentists.
This summer, Sharpp noticed her old photographs had begun to fade.
"My son was horrified," she says, "He realized that there aren't many pictures of blacks in the early 1900s. He knew the value."
Her son, Kurt, called the historical society and suggested that his mother donate her photo collection. Some people told her not to give up her photos, she says, but she donated them in August, "and I was tickled to see them (the researchers) put on their white gloves and handle them so delicately, when I had been letting them go all those years."
Tony Marconi of the historical society scanned Sharpp's photographs onto a computer disc, enhanced them, and gave her and her son a disc. Her copies now look "better than the originals," Sharpp says. The society also is transcribing the diary of Sharpp's grandmother, dating from the 1890s, which long ago had begun to fade. Sharpp also has a letter her grandmother, Amy Warren, received from her friend, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The Collie artifacts are the society's lone collection from a black family. Mintz realizes that getting more will take time and trust.
"There's a sensitivity that can't be overcome in a minute or two," says Mintz, who began working for the Historical Society of Palm Beach County last year. "We have to show we're not just a bunch of white folks out to steal their history."
There is a paucity of photos and artifacts of black life in museums throughout the region.
In Lake Worth, for example, the city museum houses more than 6,000 images. But when curator Beverly Mustaine compiled her city history, On Lake Worth, she could find only two images of black residents.
"And I could really only use one of them in the book," she says. "The other was a black man at the end of a rope."
At the St. Lucie County Historical Museum in Fort Pierce, Superintendent Iva Jean Maddox summed up the black history collection in two words: "Not much."
The Elliott Museum, run by the Historical Society of Martin County in Stuart, represents several black pioneers in its permanent exhibit on county history but has little additional information in its archives.
"It has been hard to collect material," says Curator Susan Duncan. "I can tell you the best collections are in private hands. People who have these things are hanging on to them."
No one is hanging on tighter than Preston Tillman.
At 86, Tillman is the unofficial historian of West Palm Beach's black Northwest neighborhood. He helped found the Black Historical Preservation Society of Palm Beach County in the late 1980s.
For decades, he has been dreaming of a black history museum. In 1982, he posed in front of the stately home of Hazel Augustus, West Palm Beach's first black architect, and vowed to restore it and turn it into a museum. Five years later, the home was bulldozed, too far gone to repair.
In 1994, the year West Palm Beach turned 100, the Black Historical Preservation Society opened a museum in the historic Gwen Cherry House, named for the first black woman elected to the Florida Legislature. Grants paid for the home's restoration. But when the grant money ran out, the museum closed. Vandals struck the building repeatedly, and whatever they didn't destroy was moved out.
Hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of photos and documents crowd Tillman's two-story home off Tamarind Avenue. Yellowed and dog-eared, they cover tables and chairs, fill closets, spill across desks.
"I don't want it here," Tillman says. "I can't move around my own house."
But when asked if he'll consider donating or lending his collection to a county history museum, he says: "No. People are always trying to take my pictures. This history belongs to black people."
He envisions a community foundation that could somehow profit from showing the material. Barring that, he says, the collection will go along with his house to the YMCA of the Palm Beaches.
What the collection's value will be to historians is questionable.
Many of the photos lack captions, and the papers are jumbled. Tillman, the city's first black real estate agent and a resident since his childhood in the 1920s, says his eyesight began to fail before he could organize the collection.
"The pictures don't mean anything by themselves," he says. "You have to know the stories. I'm the only one who knows."
The story he tells as he shuffles through pile after pile is like a home movie that's been broken and spliced many times. He skips back and forth across the decades. Anecdotes founder on once-familiar names of friends and neighbors.
"No one has ever sat down with Mr. Tillman to help him organize that material because he doesn't trust anybody to help him," says County Commissioner Addie Greene. As the county's only black commissioner and a member of the historical society's board, Greene said she feels a sense of urgency in getting historical material collected from older residents.
"There are people who are very organized, and those are the ones we need to go to first," Greene says.
She points to retired teacher and octogenarian Ineria Hudnell, who travels around the county with an exhibit of photos and articles that date to the late 19th century.
"She needs a place to store all that," Greene says. "There should be a permanent display. It's something everyone can learn from." (Mintz says he has spoken to Hudnell but has not yet asked her to donate her exhibit. "I'm not being pushy," he says.)
Oral history also is in peril, Greene notes. Some people protect their knowledge as closely as they protect their artifacts.
Personal feelings and politics complicate the problem. Greene says she has tried without success to interview one longtime resident who has "a mind like an elephant."
"But she just won't let me because she doesn't like me," Greene says with a laugh, but adds: "It's true."
Greene says she'll try again and also will try to persuade Tillman to lend his collection to the museum.
"I will go to him and promise that if you allow us to help organize it, we'll preserve everything," she says. "Nothing will happen to any of it."
Gwen Ferguson worked with Tillman as president of the the Black Historical Preservation Society. She says many of the Cherry House exhibits, including a black doll collection, were destroyed during break-ins. Surviving relics were rescued by other society members.
"There hasn't been a central place to house any of it," she says. She believes Tillman and others may be willing to let go if the county museum fulfills its promise.
"If they find that someone will really look after these things, they'll eventually give them up," Ferguson says.
She still has hopes of reviving the preservation society but says the Cherry House museum's collapse came with an IRS lien for unpaid payroll taxes. With interest and penalties, it now adds up to $30,000. "That discourages anyone from taking an interest," she says.
While there is not yet a countywide repository of black history, there have been successful preservation efforts in different communities.
Everee Jimerson Clarke opened the Pleasant City Heritage Gallery on North Dixie Highway in 1994 after collecting hundreds of photos, clippings and other reminders of the community's history. At 76, she has lived a good bit of it.
"I was born here," she says. "I knew the people who lived here." That helped immensely when it came time to gather their stories and photos."
Vera Farrington founded EPOCH (Expanding and Preserving Our Cultural Heritage, Inc.), which gave birth to the S.D. Spady Museum in Delray Beach. The museum opened in 2001, about six years after Farrington began the project.
"People of all races were eager to help," she says. "They were interested in how settlers from the Bahamas and North Florida came to Delray Beach. They wanted to learn more, and they still do."
Farrington was successful in getting the city's financial support and in finding volunteers to organize the collection. But finances and help both remain in short supply. "It's a day-to-day struggle," she says.
Dr. Catherine Lowe, an ophthalmologist, persuaded West Palm Beach officials to renovate and move the former home of Joseph Jenkins, one of the city's first black pharmacists. The house on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard is now the Artists Showcase, which Lowe founded.
While primarily dedicated to displaying the works of black artists, the home also presents occasional history exhibits. Hudnell's memorabilia was included in a recent retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement. She calls the planned county museum "a fantastic idea" but says finding hidden caches of local history -- and persuading owners to open them -- will take more than good intentions.
"It's going to have to be a concerted effort," she says. "They're going to have to see examples, models where this has been done, so they can feel assured that everything will be well-preserved and open to the public."
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County seems certain that its gentle persuasion will pay off.
"We didn't even solicit the Collie collection," says Tony Marconi, education coordinator and archival technician. "We explained how we could preserve the collection and they were very pleased."
While the society is asking the county to provide museum space free, the society's board has committed to raising a $2.5 million endowment to pay operating costs. Admission will be free, Mintz says. The county has already committed money for courthouse restoration: $1.5 million from last year's parks-and-culture bond issue, including $1 million designated by Greene at the society's request.
"One of the first promises they made when they asked for the funds was to represent our diverse history," Greene says. "I want all our children to be able to see their history -- not just black or white or Cuban or Indian. All the history."
One important part of the restoration: The courthouse's original courtroom, which featured a balcony where black residents were forced to sit during years of segregation.
Society President Harvey Oyer believes a history museum in the restored courthouse could lure thousands of visitors a week.
"There are 1,000 jurors a day right across the street," he says, "and another 2,000 a day who come into offices there. There are 15,000 fourth-graders in Palm Beach County studying Florida history who could visit. The museum would be a clearing house of information to enthuse people about history and show them where to turn to learn more.
"We're not trying to steal thunder from the private collections," he says, "just trying to make history available to more people, make it exciting and make it accessible."
If the county approves the space and the up-to $18.5 million in courthouse renovations proceed as planned, the museum could open in the spring of 2005.
"We have to get into that courthouse, get a home, get a permanent exhibit going," says Mintz, who has been running the historical society from cramped temporary offices in the Paramount Building in Palm Beach.
"Then people will see that we're sincere. Everyone will understand that we represent everyone in the county."
Staff writer Jan Tuckwood contributed to this story.