Experience Florida’s African American Culture & Art
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
African American history and culture has shaped Florida history for centuries, from free Africans who came with the Spanish to found a 1565 settlement to “wade-in” beach protests in the 1960s that fueled the Civil Rights Movement.
Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston was a Floridian. So was soul man Ray Charles and a long line of musicians who followed him, including blues singer Sam Moore, rapper Rick Ross, T-Pain, Flo Rida and Jason Derulo. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball here.
Florida claims the first free black community in the United States. Miami wouldn’t have become a city without the black railroad workers who stepped up to vote for its charter.
One of the most diverse states in the country exists today because of its African-American pioneers and groundbreakers. Find black cultural trailblazers, both past and present, no matter where you travel in Florida.
TAMPA, ST. PETERSBURG, TALLAHASSEE, PENSACOLA
Where to go
Tampa legend has it that songwriter Hank Ballard penned the hit song, “The Twist,” in 1958 after watching young teenagers twisting and dancing on Central Avenue in The Scrub, once Tampa’s oldest and largest African-American community. The enclave northeast of downtown was settled by emancipated slaves in 1865 and became a hot spot for traveling artists like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald on the “Chitlin Circuit.” Today, visitors can explore the neighborhood’s rich past in the newly renovated Perry Harvey Sr. Park, where 12-foot sculptures, tile installations, sand-blasted concrete wall murals, and timeline pavers artfully guide visitors through history.
In St. Petersburg, the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum features an art gallery of rotating works by black artists, its own “kitchen table book club” focused on black authors, and concerts by its resident chorus, as well as visiting chamber orchestras. The museum is named in honor of the man often regarded as “The Father of Negro History” and the creator of Black History Month.
The alluring, rippling dunes of Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola have always welcomed African Americans, even during segregation. Rosamond Johnson Beach is particularly noteworthy because it’s named for a 17-year-old black man who was the first Escambia County resident to die in the Korean War in 1950. In the city of Pensacola, the childhood home of Air Force Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James – the nation’s first African-American four-star general – was recently turned into a museum and flight academy.
In Tallahassee, the Knott House Museum is an 1843 house built by George Proctor, a free black builder. The historic home is the former residence of state official William Knott and his wife, Luella. In 1865, it was a temporary Union Headquarters. But it’s best known as the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Florida on the front steps.
Also in Tallahassee, the John Gilmore Riley Center/Museum for African American History & Culture is a cultural gem in a 126-year-old building that celebrates the accomplishments and influence of the black middle class in the late19th century. Its exhibits and events are a reminder of Smokey Hollow, a black neighborhood that once existed just east of the capital’s downtown. The center is headquarters for the U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit, which ensures the contributions of African-American soldiers in the Civil War are accurately portrayed.
What to do
The 10-day Tampa Black Heritage Festival every January celebrates black art, food, music and culture, including a two-day music festival in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. In October, the city is home to the Tampa Bay Gospel Awards at Exciting Central Tampa Baptist Church.
In Tallahassee, the Meek-Eaton Black Archives Research Center & Museum at Florida A&M University is one of the largest repositories of African-American history and culture in the Southeast. The center holds more than 500,000 individual archival records and more than 5,000 individual museum artifacts, including books signed by W.E.B. DuBois and artifacts used by Harriet Tubman. Entry is free and there are self-guided tours. Find upcoming exhibits and events on the museum’s Facebook page. The 1,190-seat Lee Hall Auditorium on Florida A&M’s campus in Tallahassee regularly hosts music, theater and dance performances.
St. Petersburg has two urban walking trails that are African American heritage trails through more than a dozen downtown city blocks. Both trails begin at the Woodson Museum. Find maps and details on the city’s parks and recreation website. In Tallahassee, the John G. Riley Center & Museum provides guides for tours of the city’s black landmarks, including the Riley House Museum, the Historic Frenchtown Community, Old Lincoln High School and Florida A&M University. In Tampa, Candy Lowe’s Black Business Bus Tour periodically hosts tours to black-owned businesses throughout the city. The Green Book of Tampa Bay is a mobile travel guide that features African-American cultural sites, black artists and black-owned businesses.
Where to explore art
Black on Black Rhyme Tampa hosts readings and poetry slams around town. Find upcoming events on the group’s Facebook page. Best Richardson African Diaspora Literature & Culture Museum in Tampa is a bookstore that specializes in African Diaspora books for children and adults. Also in Tampa, Whiskey Joe’s on the beach features the local reggae band Deja every other Sunday night.
Ruby’s Elixer is a jazz lounge in St. Petersburg with a live soul jam night on Monday nights. Also in St. Pete, the One City Chorus is a group of diverse voices that regularly rehearse and perform songs about social justice and equality at the Woodson Museum.
Three stained-glass windows in the West Tampa Branch Library are modeled after paintings by artist Synthia Saint James, best known for designing the first Kwanzaa stamp for the U.S. Postal Service in 1997. The windows, called “Kaleidoscope in Glass,” can be viewed for free during library hours.
What to eat
With menu items like Terrance’s chopped beef and Aunt Nita’s black-eyed peas, Al's Finger Licking Good Bar-B-Que in Tampa has been named Top Barbeque Joint in Florida by Mental Floss online magazine. Chef Al Reynold started as a street vendor, but he’s now housed in a bright bungalow in historic Ybor City. He specializes in Tennessee-style dry rub and tomato-based sauce on ribs, pork butts, chicken and beef. BB King’s daughter, Claudette King, shot her music video for the song “Playin’ with my Friends” here.
Mama’s Southern Soul Food Restaurant, also in Tampa, is known for its grilled baby back ribs slow cooked inside a mammoth smoker just steps outside the modest restaurant’s kitchen.
Soul Vegan Express in Tallahassee specializes in plant-based soul food, such as candied yams, collards, fresh-baked cornbread and vegan mac-and-cheese. Olean’s Café, a counter-service diner across from the FAMU campus, offers smothered pork chops, oxtail, BBQ chicken and fried catfish, with a backdrop of gospel music.
ST. AUGUSTINE, AMELIA ISLAND, JACKSONVILLE
Where to go
Fort Mose Historic State Park in St. Augustine is a must. In 1738, long before the Underground Railroad began, slaves escaped from the north to establish the first free-slave settlement in America. They later marched in a local militia that helped the city fight off the British. Today, the 40-acre waterfront historic site hosts re-enactments and weapons demonstrations on the first Saturday of every month.
Hundreds of years later, St. Augustine’s oak-shaded Lincolnville Historic District played a major role in U.S. history: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed here after a “wade-in” protest was held at the segregated white St. Augustine Beach in 1964, sparking a violent confrontation with angry whites, arrests and media attention that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act later that year.
Like Martha’s Vineyard’s Oak Bluffs and the Hamptons’ Sag Harbor, this area of Florida was known for its black vacation destinations. The American Beach community on Amelia Island – Florida’s first African-American resort community – was founded in 1935 by Florida’s first black millionaire, Afro-American Life Insurance Company founder Abraham Lincoln Lewis. The prime oceanfront destination, now a transitional mix of modest cottages, vacant lots and elegant beach homes, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Explore the seaside spot’s past at the American Beach Museum.
Frank Butler County Park, a quiet beach on Anastasia Island south of St. Augustine, also was once a popular black beachside community established by its namesake, a real estate investor who housed King during his time in St. Augustine, the only place in Florida where the civil rights leader was arrested.
In nearby Jacksonville, Hanna Park is on the site of Manhattan Beach, a former refuge for black beach-goers popular in the early 1900s. Once a bustling resort with boardwalks, concessions and vacation homes, it’s now an oceanfront city park with a splash park, biking and hiking trails, camping sites and a 1½-mile stretch of beach.
In Jacksonville, Kingsley Plantation is one of the last remaining plantation homes left standing in the state. First built in 1798, it housed a white landowner and his African wife, a free woman from Senegal. Daily guided tours and audio tours provide insights to the home and slave quarters.
What to do
See where Hank Aaron got his first big break at historic Durkee Field, now J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, in Jacksonville. Baseball has been played here since 1912. Aaron was one of three players to break the color barrier in the regional minor leagues with the then-Jacksonville Braves before being called up to the majors in 1954. The park has a Negro League Museum with information about the ballpark and the teams that played there.
“Honoring the Legacy: A Tribute to African-Americans in Golf” is a permanent exhibit at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine that features rare photographs, audio, video and memorabilia.
St. Augustine City Walks offers public historic walking tours focusing on black history & civil rights based on interviews with local residents. The ACCORD Civil Rights Museum offers a self-guided tour of more than 30 sites. Brochures are available at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center in downtown St. Augustine.
Where to explore art
Gospel plays, concerts and brunches are consistently in the lineup at the Ritz Theatre and Museum, a historic, 426-seat Art Deco theater in the heart of the Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood, known from 1921 to 1971 as the “Harlem of the South.” The museum highlights the story of James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, Jacksonville natives who composed the African-American national hymn, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
Housed on the site of St. Augustine’s first black public high school, the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center highlights the African roots that helped shape the ancient city through art, events, a jazz concert series and an Emancipation Day Re-enactment.
What to eat
Southern comfort food is on the menu at The Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro in Jacksonville, where a buffet offers country fried chicken, slow-braised ox tails and cornbread. Austin’s Soul Food Restaurant is a local favorite for chitterlings, liver and onions, and smothered shrimp. In St. Augustine, Mojo BBQ is a small, local southern barbecue franchise that also features live musical acts and southern folk art.
ORLANDO, EATONVILLE, DAYTONA BEACH, PLANT CITY
Where to go
Just 15 minutes north of downtown Orlando, the historic town of Eatonville was incorporated in 1887, making it one of the first self-governing, all-black municipalities in the United States – and the oldest still in existence today. The township’s core, the Eatonville Historic District, was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Eatonville’s most famous resident, the author Zora Neale Hurston, set her novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in Eatonville and its surrounding communities.
About a one-hour drive northwest of Orlando, Bealsville is a small farming town founded after the Civil War by 12 freed slaves near Plant City. The best time to visit is in late February, when the region throws the 11-day Florida Strawberry Festival. But the other, year-round reason to visit is one of Central Florida’s most famous artists, self-taught folk artist Ruby C. Williams, who still runs a produce stand here at 2001 State Road 60 East. Along with black-eyed peas, mandarins and collard greens, visitors can purchase her paintings that feature animals, produce and some of Williams’ feisty sayings, such as “Stay Out of My Business” and “Shut Your Mouth.” In 2005, Williams received the Florida Folk Heritage Award, and her work was featured in the exhibition, “On Their Own: Selected Works by Self-Taught African American Artists,” at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C.
Back in Orlando, the Wells’ Built Museum of African-American History and Culture is built inside the historic Wells’ Built Hotel, constructed in 1921 by Dr. William M. Wells, a prominent African-American physician. The downtown hotel exclusively catered to African-American guests who were barred from Florida’s then-segregated hotels. Listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, it houses memorabilia of Orlando’s African-American community, displays of the Civil Rights movement, and African art and artifacts.
Hannibal Square Heritage Center is a living history museum in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, where the city’s African-American past is chronicled in family photographs and personal accounts.
What to do
Visit the statue of Jackie Robinson at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, where the ground-breaking African-American baseball player played in the first integrated Major League Baseball spring training game in 1946. Along with the statue, the ballpark features historical markers and a museum.
In Disney Springs, soulful brunches, accompanied by traditional and contemporary gospel music, occur every Sunday at the House of Blues. Along with the best in local and regional choirs, enjoy chicken and waffles, carving stations and southern specialties.
The annual Zora! Fest celebrates Florida’s favorite author in Eatonville every January with a book fair, a three-day outdoor arts festival with live music, workshops on historic preservation and creative writing, and a “Hatitude” brunch. If you can’t time your visit for the festival, you can still pay your respects at the Zora Neable Hurston Monument at 200 E. Kennedy Blvd. or the Zora Neale Hurston Library up the street.
At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center on Merritt Island, a 42-foot Astronauts Memorial Space Mirror honors astronauts who lost their lives in the line of NASA duty, including the first African-American astronaut, Major Robert H. Lawrence, who died piloting a NASA test vehicle in the 1960s.
The Zora Neale Hurston National Museum in Eatonville offers maps for self-guided walking tours of the area where Zora grew up and also organizes guided tours.
Where to explore art
The Zora Neale Hurston National Museum, aka The Hurston, includes gallery space for artists of African descent.
The African-American Museum of the Arts in DeLand is the little museum that could, boasting a revolving display of art and more than 150 African-related artifacts, including some for sale.
The Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum in New Smyrna Beach provides insights into history and race relations in small-town Florida, with historical memorabilia, photos and artifacts, including more than 100 replicas of African-American inventions. A “shotgun house” is on permanent exhibit, with furniture and decor of the early 20th century.
The Orange County Regional History Center is a renovated 1927 courthouse in downtown Orlando that has been turned into a four-story exhibit space. It includes 14 paintings by a group of self-taught African-American artists known as The Florida Highwaymen who sold their Florida landscape paintings from the trunks of their cars in the 1950s and 1960s.
What to eat
Look for the train-sized barbecue smoker out front and you’ve found Chef Eddie’s, a popular soul food restaurant in Orlando that features ribs, pulled pork and BBQ chicken, along with waffles topped with every protein imaginable.
Nikki’s Place is a soul food mainstay in Orlando’s Parramore community that repeatedly wins the Sentinel’s annual Foodie Awards for its fried chicken.
At Highball & Harvest, the restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, southern-inspired cuisine is elevated to dishes that include catfish tater tots, shrimp and grits, and BBQ lamb, along with hand-crafted cocktails. Southern cuisine goes contemporary at Soco in Orlando’s Thornton Park neighborhood, with cornmeal crisped oysters and smoked black eyed pea ravioli.
KEY WEST, MIAMI, FORT LAUDERDALE, WEST PALM BEACH
Where to go
In Key West, the Bahama Village is one of Florida’s treasured “conch towns” where Bahamian culture thrives. The 16-block historic neighborhood in Old Town has a flea market, kiosks and shops, and quaint homes painted in shades of blue, turquoise, purple, yellow and red.
Also in Key West, the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum has an extensive collection of artifacts from 17th century shipwrecks, including exhibits and presentations on slave ships, Key West African cemeteries and other reflections of African ancestry.
In Miami, Coconut Grove is a village within the city limits that was originally settled in part by Bahamians. You can still see their handiwork in the coquina walls, houses and churches that give the Grove its charm. The Village West neighborhood is home to the historic Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery, where Bahamian settlers have been buried since the early 1900s. Its above-ground tombs reportedly inspired Michael Jackson’s song, “Thriller.”
Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood is one of the city’s most prominent ethnic enclaves, now on the cusp of change as art galleries and developers move in. The Little Haiti Cultural Complex beats as the arts heart of the community, with exhibits and a “Sounds of Little Haiti” live music concert on the third Friday of every month.
Overtown is Miami’s historic black community, reviving itself with a new performing arts center, art galleries and restaurants. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker all headed “over town” to jam and sleep on this side of the railroad tracks after performing in Miami Beach’s segregated nightclubs.
Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, located off the Rickenbacker Causeway just south of downtown Miami, was the first designated swimming area for African Americans in Miami in 1945, although only accessible by boat at the time. Re-opened to all in 2008, it offers free eco-history tours three days a week.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne has an award-winning beach and a place in history as part of the Underground Railroad – one of only two parks in Florida to hold that distinction. The other is Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park.
In Fort Lauderdale, Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park is the first state park in Florida named for African Americans. The beachfront land, once designated as Broward County’s only “Colored Beach,” bears the name of two civil rights leaders who led peaceful “wade-ins” at whites-only beaches to protest segregation.
In Fort Pearce, visit the grave of Zora Neale Hurson, who was buried in an unmarked grave until novelist Alice Waker, the author of “The Color Purple,” and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found and marked the grave in 1973. Located in the Garden of the Heavenly Rest Cemetery, Hurston's grave marker is flanked by two plants and inscribed, "Zora Neale Hurston, A genius of the South."
What to do
The Lyric Theatre in Miami hosts Apollo-styled “Amateur Nights” on the first Friday of the month, with a happy hour and DJ. The audience decides who wins as a Bahamian Junkanoo band ushers less-favored performers off the stage.
Also in Miami, the Black Lounge Film Series stages monthly screenings of films that explore the global black experience, with viewings at the Overtown Performing Arts Center and outdoor sunset shows in Gibson Park.
Built in 1925, the Ward Rooming House used to provide a safe place to sleep at night for black travelers and Seminoles banned from downtown Miami hotels. Today, the two-story building is an artists’ residence and gallery, with shows curated by Hampton Arts Lovers, a group associated with Hampton University that is dedicated to African-American fine art.
The Overtown Music & Arts Festival is an annual event anchored by the Ward Rooming House and its surrounding blocks. The free, all-day festival occurs every July and showcases music, art and food.
Bahamian junkanoo music is popular in Key West, and bands get a chance to strut their stuff at the annual Key West Fantasy Fest every October.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum’s Key West Africana Festival, held in June, focuses on the African diaspora.
Urban Tour Host provides walking, culinary and bus tours specializing in Miami’s cultural communities. Tours R Us, run by the former associate vice president of cultural tourism for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, offers tours of Miami that include Overtown and other hidden gems.
HistoryMiami museum offers a calendar of city tours by bike, boat and bus throughout the year.
Cultural Heritage Alliance Tours (CHAT) provides a two-hour, six-block historic walking tour of Overtown that includes soul food.
In Little Haiti, La Perle De Miami offers Saturday tours that delve into vodou and music, with guests meeting at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex and traveling in a colorful Haitian tap tap (bus). Cultural Heritage Alliance Tours (CHAT) also has a walking and tasting tour of Little Haiti.
Where to explore art
Jazz in the Gardens is a springtime mainstay in Miami, with a weekend-long festival every March that includes musicians like Chaka Khan, Anita Baker and Smokey Robinson, along with art, jewelry, fashion and Caribbean food.
Perez Art Museum Miami in downtown has distinguished itself as a home for black artists with its Fund for African American Art, which supports the purchase of contemporary art by African American artists, such as Al Loving, Faith Ringgold and Xaviera Simmons.
In a city known for its art galleries, it’s worth exploring Yeelen, a gallery founded by Jamaican-born art dealer Karla Ferguson to promote artists of the African diaspora.
Prizm Art Fair is held during Miami Art Week, which coincides with Art Basel Miami Beach every December, and showcases African artists and artists of the African diaspora. Art Beat Miami occurs at the same time, celebrating Haitian and Caribbean culture in Little Haiti.
The M Ensemble is Florida’s oldest surviving black theater company now housed at the Sandrell Rivers Theater in Liberty City. The group tackles musicals and contemporary plays, as well as classical and original works, including Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin,’ ” and “Fences,” by August Wilson.
Free Gospel Sundays is a four-concert series at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County that features a different headline gospel artist each time, along with the all-star Miami Mass Choir and a rotating local church choir.
The African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale houses more African-American history books and books written by African-Americans – 85,000! – than any other facility in the country. There are also artifacts by and about people of African descent, a 300- seat auditorium, exhibit areas, a historic archive, a viewing and listening center and other historical material on black history.
What to eat
Awash Ethiopian Restaurant in Miami Gardens is owned by a husband-and-wife team who offer Ethiopian fried fish, lentil sambusa and other cuisine from the horn of Africa.
In five spots throughout Miami-Dade County, including Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood and Miami International Airport, Chef Creole serves food with Haitian and Bahamian roots, such as jerk and creole wings, grilled conch and pork ribs.
The Bon Gout Haitian barbecue restaurant is a former roadside stand now in a brick-and-mortar space in Little Haiti, serving American Southern barbecue with a Haitian twist and a side of pikliz pickled cabbage.
In Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, Jackson Soul Food has been serving authentic Southern comfort food since 1946, including fried catfish, candied yams, fried conch, collard greens, liver and onions, and homemade biscuits.
House of Wings, also in Overtown, is a popular counter-service corner store with over 60 flavors of chicken wings, including Hennessy Glaze, Citrus Island Breeze and Barack Obama.
In the Little River neighborhood just north of Little Haiti, The Citadel is a trendy Caribbean-themed food hall built in a repurposed 1950s bank building. The expansive space has 15 food outposts plus a bar.
In South Miami, the healthy, fast-casual eatery Grown is owned by former Miami Heat player Ray Allen and his wife, Shannon Allen. The only USDA-certified organic fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru on the East Coast, it serves small-batch soups, salads, sandwiches, and wraps, gluten-free baked goods, cold-pressed juices and fruit smoothies.