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A new cultural exhibit shows that Black history is Oakland history

Instant Photo Poster
Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Monday, February 15, 2021


Courtesy of the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation

W.V. Nixon, the Town of Oakland's first Black commissioner, with Edna Jones and Ruby Lee.

The Healthy West Orange Arts and Heritage Center in the Town of Oakland opened quietly in late January, with little fanfare in the age of Covid-19, but just in time for Black History Month. Its inaugural exhibit Est. 1887, explores the town’s origins, weaving in information about key Black figures, like  W.V. Nixon, the Town of Oakland's first Black commissioner; Curtis Massey, the town's first Black mayor; and Francine Postell, the first female Black mayor. 

There is also a special focus on the town’s Historic African American Cemetery, which predates the town by five years. Emancipated slaves, migrant workers and Black workers who lived in Oakland are buried in the cemetery. Burials ceased in the 1940s.

“We thought including our Black history would make sense and would be appealing to our community,” said Elisha Pappacoda, the Town of Oakland's director of communications.

Along with the photographs, paintings and other artifacts that date to the town’s incorporation on display, Est. 1887 features photographs from inside the Historic African American Cemetery of the unique grave markers, decorated with sea shells, that adorn some grave sites, as well as pictures of other tombstones with 1918, 1920 and 1921 death dates. 

“A lot of people died during the Spanish flu,” said Pappacoda. In fact, one of the women who was instrumental in saving the cemetery from developers, Betty Wade, had a “grandfather who died of Spanish flu,” said Pappacoda. “He’s buried there.”

Although the Historic African-American Cemetery is currently closed to visitors because the site has become overgrown, the town is anticipating receiving a $25,000 grant in July (contingent on state budget funding) to restore and maintain the area and hire experts to research the site and determine who is buried there. A community "clean-up day" is also planned. Should the grant get funded, the town will also receive an additional matching grant of $25,000. 

“We are getting a plan in place so we can clear it and bring it back to a place where people can visit and learn more about its history,” says Pappacoda.

Healthy West Orange Arts and Heritage Center 126 Petris Ave., Oakland, Fridays from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. Limit 10 people at a time in the gallery because of Covid-19.

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