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Tallahassee

Black history museum task force elects state Sen. Geraldine Thompson chair

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By
Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Saturday, October 7, 2023

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Florida Senate

Elected chair of the Florida Museum of Black History, state Sen. Geraldine Thompson said she was "committed to working with other task force members to ensure that we tell the unvarnished truth about the African American experience in Florida."

State Sen. Geraldine Thompson last week was elected chair of the nine-member Florida Museum of Black History task force, chosen in a 5-4 vote at the group’s first meeting.


Thompson, a Democrate who represents Oakland, Ocoee and parts of Winter Garden, has museum experience. She founded the Wells’Built Museum in downtown Orlando, which highlights civil rights and Orlando Black history.


“I am committed to working with other Task Force members to ensure that we tell the unvarnished truth about the African American experience in Florida,” Thompson said in a press release. “We can’t celebrate the progress that we have made as a State and a Nation without acknowledging the pain associated with that.”


The task force is charged with developing plans for the design and construction of the museum along with making recommendations for its location, operation and administration, marketing and exhibits. Their recommendations must be submitted by June to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner.


Members are already jockeying to build the museum in key cities, like St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee. Thompson is eyeing Eatonville, the country’s first all-Black incorporated city, about six miles outside of Orlando, as a preferred site.


“There are currently negotiations going on related to land that was given to the town of Eatonville for educational purposes, and that’s something that I am looking at while remaining open to alternatives that might be convincing from other members of the Task Force,” she said in the press release.


Democratic state Rep. Bruce Antone whose legislation in the last session, HB 1441, created the task force, supports Eatonville as the location, particularly because he said that Orange County has tentatively agreed to contribute $30 million to the museum project with the state kicking in another $30 million.


“We can do a whole lot with $60 million,” Antone said. “You could come up with a world class museum.”


Antone, who represents District 41, including Ocoee, told VoxPopuli in April, that Florida needed a museum that told the story of the Black experience in Florida.


“There is no one museum in Florida that I know of that serves as a perfect monument to capture the history of Black folks in Florida,” he said. “It is not just about slavery. It’s about Black people in Florida.”


But while the Florida Museum of Black History was Antone’s brainchild, he was not appointed to the task force. DeSantis, Passidomo and Renner made all appointments.


In a phone interview Friday, Antone said he was disappointed. “I most definitely wanted to be included on the task force. It was my idea, my vision.” But, he added, “At this point in time, why I'm not on the task force is not that important.” Now, he is focused on how the museum plans develop and whether Florida is “doing the right thing.”


His concern is that the necessary funding won’t be there, and they’ll end up with some “Target, WalMart, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar version of the museum.”


His vision is grander, documented in a 59-page concept report that he wants the task force to review and, quite frankly, execute: One hundred thousand square feet of exhibition space. Up to 25 exhibit halls, organized by category: Black military participation; Blacks in the space program; Black scientists and inventors; historically Black colleges and universities in Florida; Black contributions to aviation; slavery, Restoration and civil rights in Florida.


"The possibilities of this museum are unlimited, and it would generate so much interest because Black folks, white folks, Asians, Hispanics — they will come to see all of this craziness going on surrounding Black history now. Folks were like, Let me go see it,” Antone said. “The evidence being the National African American Museum of History in D.C. — 1.2 million visitors a year. The Legacy Museum in Montgomery — half a million. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee — half a million folks. Birmingham, they have a civil rights museum. They get 350,000 people a year.”


Antone believes a Florida Museum of Black History could be an economic driver for Florida.


"If you do a world class museum … you could create a major tourist attraction that draws folks to the state of Florida or that gets folks to stay an extra night in Florida, and they would spend extra money,” Antone said.

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