A Democratic lawmaker envisions a multi-purpose cultural center dedicated to the Black experience in the Sunshine State — and he wants it in Orlando.
With Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent actions that devalue and erase the history of Black America, Democratic state Rep. Bruce Antone of Ocoee is advocating for a Florida Museum of Black History that would present the extensive culture and history of African-Americans.
Antone, who represents District 41, introduced House Bill 1441, which cleared its first committee and is now in the Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee, to establish a museum specifically about the Black experience in the Sunshine State. In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell of Palm Beach County filed a companion bill, SB 1606, now in the Governmental Accounting and Oversight Committee.
“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,” Antone told VoxPopuli in a phone interivew. “It’s time for something like this in Florida. The museum that really captures the history of Black folks and the contributions they made to Florida. It is not just about slavery, it is about Black people in Florida.”
Florida has a number of museums — located in Tallahassee, Pensacola, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, New Smyrna Beach, DeLand, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and elsewhere — dedicated to the Black experience. Some are dedicated to the African arts and Black artists, others to general Black history in America while other facilities focus on the lives and accomplishments of noted Black Americans, the history of a specific city or serve as a repository for archives and artifacts for research. In downtown Orlando, the Wells’Built Museum — housed in a former hotel for Black travelers who could not stay elsewhere because of segregation — focuses on the civil rights movement and Orlando’s Black history.
“Ohio has an Underground Railroad Museum that highlights the contributions of African-Americans in that state and the sense of renewal and liberty that formerly enslaved people felt when they crossed the Ohio River into free territory,” state Sen. Geraldine F. Thompson who founded the Wells’Built Museum, said in an emailed statement.
“Washington, D.C. is now home to the National Museum of African-American History, which documents the lives and accomplishments of African-Americans throughout the United States. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum recounts the stories of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and others who journeyed to make that state what it is today,” the Orange County Democrat continued.
“An institution like those highlighted is needed in Florida to tell the stories of African-Americans who were among the first to arrive in this territory in the 1500s.”
Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg, supports efforts to construct a new museum to highlight Florida’s Black history, “properly and professionally.” She told VoxPopuli in an email that Florida currently has no Black museum that was intentionally built to be a museum.
“They’re all retrofitted buildings — old schools, churches, community centers, libraries, store fronts and the like. The absence of a museum constructed for the purpose of being a museum limits the ability to showcase important artifacts, art and sensitive materials that tell the stories associated with Black history. Certain items can only be housed in places with proper humidity, lightning and security.”
Scott said that lacking those elements, there isn’t a Black museum in the state that “can receive a Smithsonian exhibit or other loaner exhibits within their spaces.” As a result, visitors have to rely on “other cultural museums that occasionally allow exhibitions reflective of Black culture when they can build it into their programming.” That's something Scott has been actively working to change long before HB 1441 was filed. She already has $10 million pledged from Hines Development and the Tampa Bay Rays for the design and construction of a new building for the Woodson African-American Museum of Florida as part of the Historic Gas Plant District Redevelopment.
Over the last year, DeSantis and the Republican legislative majority have taken several actions that target historically marginalized groups, including African-Americans. This includes eliminating references to racism in history books, banning books written by prominent Black authors, rejecting a high school Advanced Placement course on African-American history as well as restricting voting rights, establishing gerrymandered congressional districts that weakened Black voting power, creating an election security force targeting minorities and blocking funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs in state colleges and universities.
Antone's advocacy for a Florida Black history museum now comes partly as a response to attempts to suppress the teaching and discussion of Black history throughout the state. But his top priority, he said, is to "create a high quality museum."
And he would like nothing better than for the museum to be located in Orlando. “They can go see Mickey Mouse, then go see the Black museum.”
If it passes, Antone's bill would establish a nine-member task force within the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources that would develop plans for the location, design and construction of the museum along with recommendations for its operation and administration, marketing and exhibits. While the governor, president of the senate and speaker of the house will each appoint three members of the task force, the bill requires that at least three members have five-plus years experience as either tenured faculty in history at a Florida public or private university or in the fields of historical research and publication, archival design or preservation, multipurpose public building design or construction, the hospitality and service industry, business, finance, marketing; law or education.
Museum exhibits and installations would cover Florida’s history of slavery and segregation (including events like the Ocoee and Rosewood Massacres, Axe Handle Saturday, the Tallahassee Bus Boycott and the prosecution and eventual exoneration of the Groveland Four), the state’s many Historically Black Colleges and Universities, notable African-Americans and the contributions of Black veterans, including the Tuskegee Airmen.
According to the bill, the facility would house archival research and storage facilities, meeting rooms, a performing arts theater and a banquet hall with a kitchen capable of serving at least 250 guests.
The Senate version of the bill requests $500,000 in appropriations for the museum’s planning, construction, operation and administration along with $1 million appropriation in annual operating funds. Antone said he would also seek $30 million from Orange County’s tourist development tax to help construct the museum, but acknowledged that the project would cost closer to $50 million. He plans to fundraise the remaining $20 million from local organizations.
“I don’t think [Orange County] ever invested any real money, more than $1 million or so, in something that has a Black or African-American theme,” Antone said.
“This is going to be something huge if I can pull it off,” Antone said. “It's not a store-front building … but you know there is a National Museum of African American History in Washington D.C … This would not be that on that size or magnitude, but it would be something substantial.”
Updated April 8, 2023, to reflect information about the $10 million pledge from Hines Development and the Tampa Bay Rays for Woodson African-American Museum of Florida's new building.
Norine Dworkin contributed to this story.