Plans for African American Historical Museum Move Forward

Several of Lakeland’s Black community leaders are working toward establishing the African American Historical Museum of Lakeland and have been gifted property to house the museum.

“Younger generations are not aware of the many things Blacks have contributed to the Lakeland community,” said the Rev. Alex Harper, pastor at First Baptist Institutional Church and president of the proposed museum’s board of directors. “We feel there is an urgent need for some of these things to be restored in the memory of our community.”

Doris Moore Bailey, a longtime Lakeland activist, serves on the museum’s board of directors as well. “We must capture and tell our own stories,” she said.

The nonprofit museum has been gifted property at New York Avenue and Emma Street by the Dukes family, who used to live in Lakeland and relocated to Washington, D.C., following a controversial decision regarding how black schools were operated in Polk County in the late 1940s, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The museum board is now in talks with the Lakeland Planning and Zoning Department, as that area is residential.

Board members are working on plans for infrastructure, donations and membership. They have consulted with leaders at African-American museums in Chicago, Alabama and Texas to receive operational insight and guidance.

From the board members’ research, they estimate it will take at least $500,000 to open and operate the museum. “We are working to make it happen with limited resources,” said Moore Bailey, who is working alongside Deloris Patterson, Albertha Whittley-Tabron, Mildred McMillon, Lorenzo Robinson, Annie Phyall and the Rev. Harper on the board.

Moore Bailey estimates the museum could open in 2023.

An African American Historical Museum has been talked about for several years, she said. When the idea was presented to the Lakeland City Commission in 2018, the concept quickly evolved into a museum to include the various ethnicities and cultures that contributed to Lakeland.

That project, the Lakeland History and Cultural Center, is currently under construction at the Lakeland Public Library and expected to open in early 2022.

While the History and Cultural Center is an important step for inclusion and tolerance, African-American Historical Museum supporters say, there are so many artifacts and heritage that a museum dedicated solely to African-American contributions is needed.

“I’m so, so excited,” Moore Bailey said. “Just the idea of coming together as a community for an African-American Historical Museum is so exciting. The Jackson Trail, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, there’s so much rich history in the community.”

The role of Blacks throughout Lakeland’s history has been significant, said Cinnamon Bair, who wrote a weekly history column for The Ledger in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Emphasis on African-American history is long overdue in Polk County,” she said. “The area has an amazingly rich history of accomplishment – and a dire history of mistreatment. A museum that can expose and explore that story would be a welcome addition.”

In addition to exhibits, the African-American Historical Museum would offer lectures, live entertainment, film festivals and book club meetings. Exhibit items could include information, photos and artifacts from historically Black churches, businesses owned by African-Americans, Washington Park and Rochelle schools, the Tiger Flower cemetery, Oldham Funeral Home, and Black communities and homes.

Nearby Black heritage attractions include the African American Heritage Museum in Bartow and the L.B. Brown House Museum in Bartow, which hosts a weekend-long L.B. Brown Heritage Festival each winter.

The opening of a Lakeland museum is especially poignant, said the Rev. Harper, former president of the Lakeland branch of the NAACP, because of the racial unrest taking place throughout the United States.

“A museum can help enlighten us on some of the problems we are seeing right now and help us create a better climate,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Rev. Harper was former pastor at First Baptist Institutional Church and that Terry Coney is still a member of the board planning the museum.

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