Celebrate Black History in The Palm Beaches

February 1, 2021

While always something to be honored, celebrated and studied, Black history comes into finer focus during the month of February.

Whether you’re looking to learn about a different culture or become more aware of your own, here are a few ways to immerse yourself in The Palm Beaches’ Black history this February and throughout the year.

Events and Exhibits

During Black History Month, The Boca Raton Museum of Art is spotlighting two Black artists from their collection, Renee Cox and Ben Patterson. The artists’ work will be visible on the museum’s second floor. Each piece will have a QR code next to it, linking to a corresponding video where viewers can learn more about the artist and their works. 

The Signing by Renee Cox
The Signing (2017) by Renee Cox; courtesy the Boca Raton Museum of Art

Every Sunday through the month of February from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach will be holding its second annual Gospel & Jazz in the Gardens. Visitors will have the opportunity to listen to gospel and jazz from world-class artists among the monumental works of Ann Norton. Performing artists include Troy Anderson as Louis Armstrong, The Ebony Chorale of The Palm Beaches, Avery Sommers and Ritah Wilburn. Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students and children ages 5 and up.

The Ebony Chorale of The Palm Beaches
The Ebony Chorale of The Palm Beaches; photo by CAPEHART

Open now through Feb. 25, the Historical Society of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach presents City of Hope: Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign. The free exhibit will be held outdoors to help ensure visitor safety. This timely poster exhibit honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final and most ambitious vision, that each U.S. citizen should have equal access to economic opportunities and the American dream. A focus of the exhibit is the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign – a grassroots, multiracial movement that drew thousands of people to Washington, D.C., for 43 days, demanding social reforms. Organized by the Smithsonian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, City of Hope highlights protest signs and political buttons, as well as newly discovered photographs from the campaign.

Historical Society of Palm Beach County
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County

Museums and Historic Sites

In Delray Beach, visit the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, home to photos, memorabilia and other artifacts that document Black history and heritage in Palm Beach County. Even the museum’s location is significant: It’s the former home of the late Solomon D. Spady, a prominent African American educator and advocate who came to Delray Beach as a teacher and principal in 1922 and made a lasting impact throughout his career. The Spady Museum also hosts historic tours of the area, as well as art shows, speakers and other events.

Spady Cultural Heritage Museum
Spady Cultural Heritage Museum

In West Palm Beach on 8th Street, the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church was originally founded in 1893 in an area of Palm Beach known as the “Styx.” This is where Black workers settled as they built Henry Flagler’s hotel and other properties until they were eventually forced to relocate to West Palm Beach. Many moved to what is now the Northwest neighborhood, the historic center of West Palm Beach’s Black community. The church first moved to Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, where it founded the first school for African American children in Palm Beach County. In 1925, the church again relocated to its current location on 8th Street, where you can see the National Register of Historic Places site today. Also on 8th Street at Rosemary Avenue, work is underway on the multimillion-dollar revitalization and expansion of the Sunset Lounge, a famed 1920s-era cocktail bar and music venue where icons like Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald performed.

As you explore West Palm Beach, keep an eye out for a series of banners along Rosemary Avenue between 3rd and 11th streets honoring Black pioneers of the historic Northwest neighborhood. The banners, a project of The African American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC) of Palm Beach County, feature a range of business owners and professionals including: Mildred Wilborn Gildersleeve, a freed slave, midwife and inductee into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame who delivered many of Palm Beach County’s leading citizens; Folia Stuckey, who owned and ran several businesses in both West Palm Beach and Lake Harbour including a grocery store, motel and restaurant; and James Jerome “Cracker” Johnson, an entrepreneur and property owner whose generosity to the city and the neighborhood earned him a Robin Hood-like lore and the nickname, “King of Black West Palm Beach.”

Banner honoring Mildred Gildersleeve
Rosemary Avenue banner honoring Mildred Gildersleeve

Johnson’s legacy is also recognized via a marker in the sidewalk outside what remains of his former bar across the street from the site of the Grand Theatre on Rosemary Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets. Developers of The Grand, an apartment complex being built at this location, have promised to relocate the marker to the front of the apartment complex once it’s complete. Several other markers, created by Habitat for Humanity with the help of the AARLCC of Palm Beach County, can be found nearby. The first, at the northeast corner of Tamarind Avenue and Banyan Boulevard (formerly 1st Street), describes the boundaries of the historic Black community. Another, on 5th Street between Douglass and Division, marks the original 1916 site of Pine Ridge Hospital, the only hospital for Black patients in Palm Beach County and several surrounding counties during segregation. Another was placed on Division Avenue between 5th and 6th streets at the lot of the once grand home of Hazel Augustus, the first Black architect in West Palm Beach. A fifth marker is at Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and Tamarind Avenue, recognizing a neighborhood known as Freshwater Lakes.

These are some of the stories that the AARLCC of Palm Beach County has helped to preserve and celebrate, and there are more markers in the works. The organization is dedicated to finding and saving original source materials pertaining to local Black history with the goal of creating a museum to house these important artifacts (learn how to donate here).

At Tamarind Avenue and 25th Street in West Palm Beach, a small park holds an important piece of history, the Hurricane of 1928 Mass Burial Site, where approximately 674 Black residents were buried in an unmarked mass grave. They were victims of a mammoth hurricane that struck South Florida on Sept. 16, 1928, causing the Lake Okeechobee dike to collapse and flood much of the south side of the lake. It is believed that up to 3,000 people died in the storm, many of whom were Black migrant workers who had no warning about the storm. The site remained unmarked until the early 2000s. Today, there is a marker and a fence surrounding the small plot of land. The Storm of ’28 Memorial Park Coalition is working to build a permanent memorial, museum and educational facility. Due to COVID-19, the group’s annual remembrance event at the site has been postponed from its September date and may take place in February or March with a virtual option. Check their Facebook page for the latest on the event and to learn how to donate to the coalition.

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