Winter is right around the corner, so why not head to Florida to soak up some sun or do Disney before the cold sets in? A beach vacation to the sunshine state also offers an unforgettable cultural experience in Black history. Florida boasts a rich heritage in African-American achievements, from the days of slavery to present-day contributions. The state also claims several African-American firsts, like the town of Eatonville, located just outside of Orlando, where citizens established the first town governed by Blacks.
Why not take the short drive to Eatonville and the surrounding areas to learn about some of the state’s African-American contributions when visiting Orlando and Disney World. A host of vibrant Black historic sites can be found in Central Florida.
You can start your Black heritage exploration of Central Florida in Eatonville. This is where culture anthropologist, novelist and social commentator Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1903. The town honors the famous Harlem Renaissance writer and folklorist with the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. The museum contains details about Hurston’s life and work, as well as historical information about the town of Eatonville, one of the last communities of its kind. Since 1990, the museum has continuously presented three to four exhibits a year featuring the work of Black artists at various stages of their careers. The museum hosts the Zora Hurston Festival each year. A gifted writer, Hurston penned several great novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God and Herod the Great. In 1975 Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, spearheaded a rediscovery of her writings. Today, Hurston is widely regarded as the foremost interpreter of southern, rural African-American life during the 1920s and 30s. The town of Eatonville is creating a statewide trail honoring Hurston, with 16 historic sites and 10 markers. A brochure about this trail can be obtained from the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts.
After visiting Eatonville, ease on down the road to Daytona Beach, a city where another great African-American is honored. Here you can visit the Jackie Robinson Ballpark, named for the great baseball player and civil rights activist. This is the park where Robinson scored a home run for his people as the first African-American to join an all-white team. A sculpture of Robinson can be found at the park in commemoration of this 1946 event. The historic ballpark first opened on June 4, 1914, and was called the Daytona City Island Ballpark. The park was renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1989 as the stadium served as host to the first racially integrated game in baseball history. A Jackie Robinson museum was built on the site featuring plaques and interpretive exhibits on the great ball player’s life. The oldest ball park in its league that also leads in attendance, the Jackie Robinson Ballpark set a season attendance record of 164,007 in 2008.
Also in Daytona Beach is the Howard Thurman House, named for the influential African-American who was an author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. The author of 20 books of ethical and cultural criticism, Thurman traveled widely, heading Christian missions and meeting with world figures such as Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman once asked Gandhi for a message that he should take back to the United States. Gandhi replied that he regretted not having made nonviolence more visible as a practice worldwide and suggested that some American Black men would succeed in a nonviolence movement. Thurman later became an inspiration, mentor and spiritual advisor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The first Black Dean of Theology at the chapel of Boston University, Thurman also helped establish the first racially integrated, multicultural church in the United States in 1944. The Howard Thurman House was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
Daytona Beach is home to still another noted Black heritage site, the Mary McLeod Bethune House. Named for this Renaissance woman who was an educator, administrator, presidential advisor and civil rights leader, the site is a simple two-story building where Bethune lived from the 1920s until her death in 1955. The house contains original furnishings, with a library where you will find archives of the Mary McLeod Bethune historic papers. From the Mary McLeod Bethune House, visit the nearby Bethune-Cookman College, an institute that Bethune helped to establish. Some of the buildings here are designated national historic landmarks. Bethune started the school as the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls with the philanthropic support of white northerners. In 1923, the school merged with Jacksonville’s Cookman Institute for Boys, and eight years later the name was changed to Bethune-Cookman College.
Another important Central Florida Black heritage site is the Wells' Built Museum of African-American History & Culture, located right in Orlando. The site was originally built by William Monroe Wells M.D., one of Orlando's first Black physicians who came to the area in 1917 and the only Black physician here during part of WWII. Wells constructed the site in 1926 and opened it as the Wells’ Built Hotel with three storefronts on the first floor in addition to the rooms for lodging. One of the most popular venues for African-Americans in the South, the Wells' Built Hotel once provided lodging for such notables as Roy Campenella, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson, as well as performers of the “Chitlin Circuit” like Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. The hotel was restored as a museum housing tributes to these music legends and other local and national notable African-Americans. With more than 6,000 square feet of display space, the museum retains the original hotel façade and features a guestroom with authentic furniture and decorations of the 1930s. It has an original interior wall with architectural designs unique to that period. Exhibits include official hotel documents, an original Negro League baseball jersey, photographs, artifacts, books and slave records.
Make plans to visit these and other places related to Black history the next time you visit Florida. Central Florida promises not only fun at Disney and its beaches, but also valuable educational and cultural heritage experiences. For more information, visit www.VisitFlorida.com.
Caption: Jackie Robinson Ballpark, Daytona Beach
Caption: Howard Thurman House, Daytona Beach