Black History Month: 5 Southwest Florida places to visit
The historian Carter G. Woodson once said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Woodson, who felt that American studies lacked black history, in 1926 helped to launch “Negro History Week.” It was celebrated during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. By the late 60s, that week evolved into a month, and in 1976 President Gerald Ford made it official. While there are those who shun the idea of revisiting the past as it can be painful, understanding and appreciating it can create a sense of culture and history while serving as a roadmap to what we should avoid.
Florida is more than 65,000 square miles, which sounds overwhelming, so pick an area to explore then expand your horizons. Start by gassing up your car and heading to one of these places on the west side of the state. Once you arrive, you can stay on I-75 or hop onto Route 41 (Tamiami Trail); it’s so close to the beaches you can almost smell the sand.
Consider these three stops your starter kit as they offer just a peek, but they will probably make you thirsty for more.
Punta Gorda, Charlotte County
Founded in 1884, Punta Gorda encourages residents and visitors to get walking and cycling on their system of pathways. Its rich preservation of black history can be found in places such as the Blanchard House Museum which is dedicated to educating future generations and the Railroad Depot and Antique Mall.
The doors to the depot that lead to the entrance instantly pulls you into the past. There is one that reads “white,” and above the other door, “colored.” Though signs like these no longer exist, they can leave you wondering how those who entered through them back then might have felt. You are then led into separate waiting rooms, ticket windows and bathrooms. Let’s face it, separate has never really meant equal.
While Charlotte county was one of the first counties to voluntarily desegregate, an exhibit at the depot reveals that 20 years after the end of slavery, our Sunshine Sate passed a law forbidding integrated schools. The effects of racism and segregation are reflected in the staged classrooms that were separated. Black students spent fewer days in school than whites, and black teachers were sometimes paid nothing at all. It could be said that images such as these do not spark joy, but they may just elicit pride in the unyielding spirit of human beings.
About 30 minutes from Punta Gorda is Lee County, named for the American Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The county began desegregation the year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and according to Lee County Black History Society, which operates the Williams Academy Black History Museum in Fort Myers, the original structure built-in 1912 was the county’s first government-funded school for black students. The structure consists of two rooms. One houses historical memorabilia and information on the culture of the black community and the other is a recreated 1940s classroom. It shows the stark contrast of the different experiences of black versus white students. Though the museum offers a virtual tour, this cannot compete with the in-person interactive experience.
A quick 45-minute ride gets you from Lee County to Naples. Blacks were the first minority to settle in the city, which is now hailed as the place to be for retirees. They worked in kitchens, were nannies and also helped build the railroad and freight canal that flowed from Naples to the Gulf of Mexico.
Check out Naples Art, formerly Naples Art Association, where there are curated works by artists and local collectors. The Black History Month exhibition is five weeks long and features music and discussion. Drop-in on Feb. 13, when Oliver L. Phipps, the principal of Shadowlawn Elementary School, offers a lively talk on black history, and Andrew Diggz, a local musician and artist, will perform.
You will also be able to learn the story of Carl Strickland, the first black officer to serve on the Naples force, if you stop by the Naples Depot Museum. He was the city’s first police officer killed in the line of duty. Strickland, who had only been on the force for 30 days before his death in 1954, was buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery. His grave was eventually marked and his name placed on the memorials of fallen state and national officers.
Fully appreciating the many contributions of Black Americans to the state of Florida cannot be achieved through a single day trip, and quite frankly, a month isn't even enough — as you can see from the five stops we explored this week.
But taking it slow is better anyway. Look for articles in February that are tagged “Black History Month.” Start the learning there. Next comes the exploring. Visit a local art studio or museum where the work of Black artists — especially locally grown ones — can be found or where you can get an education into the colorful past of the Sunshine State. And when you’re ready, gas up your ride and hit the road.
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