WEST PALM BEACH — While it's Black History Month across America, West Palm Beach boasts more than a century of Black history and is taking steps to highlight that year round.
There are multiple sites and neighborhood streets that speak to the historical significance of the Black community in West Palm Beach.
"Tamarind, Henrietta, Sapodilla and Rosemary (avenues), you almost have the whole history of the community," says former City Commissioner Ike Robinson, who made an early push for the Sunset Lounge renovation and is pressing current city leaders to open a museum devoted to the city's African-American heritage. "This city has so much rich history, it is not funny."
A few of West Palm's highlights:
1. The Sunset Lounge. The city's revival of the 1930's era Sunset Lounge, nearing completion eight blocks from downtown off North Rosemary Avenue, is designed as a focal point for African-American tourism in a neighborhood that harkens to the city's first days 125 years ago.
The city has spent years and more than $12 million on the old-time ballroom, an adjacent Heart and Soul Park and a row of shotgun-style houses targeted for small and start-up businesses.
2. Pine Ridge Hospital: Pine Ridge Hospital opened in 1916 at 5th Street and Division Avenue and moved to 1401 Division six years later. It was the only hospital open to Blacks in five South Florida counties.
Black residents and hotel waiters helped raise the money to build the hospital, originally made of wood and costing about $1,600. Famed Broadway showman
Al Jolson handed out awards at a 1919 benefit dance for Pine Ridge at the Royal Poinciana Hotel on Palm Beach.
It later morphed into an apartment house and decayed and plans to revitalize it stalled.
Undated early photo of Pine Ridge Hospital. Standing fifth from the right is Dr. Warren Hale Collie. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County
3. The Cracker Johnson house. Also at Division and 14th: the one-time home of James J. "Cracker" Johnson. A legend in the community, Johnson worked in real estate and rentals and loaned money to Blacks because white banks wouldn't. He ran hooch during Prohibition. He ran a gentleman's dinner club. He ran a bolita operation. By the 1940s, he was a Black man earning up to $10,000 a week. In 1946, he saw a friend being attacked behind his bar. He rushed to help and was mortally wounded in a gunfight.
4. Hurricane of 1928 Memorial. The 1928 hurricane killed between 2,500 and 3,000 people, mostly Black migrant farmers and pioneers whose bodies were buried in mass, unmarked graves. One of the worst disasters in U.S. history, the storm destroyed settlements on the shores of Lake Okeechobee in minutes. The bones of 674 of those victims are scattered underground at Tamarind Avenue and 25th Street.
5. Evergreen Cemetery opened in 1916, an era when Blacks were by no means allowed to spend eternity
alongside whites. Evergreen is a block north of Tamarind Avenue and 25th
Street, where just 12 years later, authorities would dig a hole and
dump the black victims of the 1928 hurricane.
Among those buried at Evergreen: Dr. T. Leroy Jefferson, the city's first black physician; educator James W. Mickens; and real estate investor Henry Speed. "All of the pioneers and movers and shakers are buried in Evergreen," says former City Commissioner Robinson.
6. Payne Chapel AME church: Founded 128 years ago, Payne Chapel AME is one of Palm Beach County's oldest churches. It started in 1893 in the Styx, the Black neighborhood
in Palm Beach, and later moved to West Palm Beach.
After Blacks were moved from the Styx to the mainland, the congregation set up on Tamarind Avenue and Banyan Boulevard in West Palm. In 1925, the members began a permanent home at 801 9th St. in a neo-Gothic Revival style church designed by the city's only Black architect, Hazel Augustus. The great 1928 hurricane demolished the old church on Banyan Boulevard. Services were held in the basement of the "New Church on the
Hill" on Ninth Street, starting the first Sunday in January 1929.
7. Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church: Not far behind Payne was Tabernacle, which opened as Mount Olive Baptist Church on Oct. 8, 1893 with 18 members. It now boasts 350, some of them descendants of West Palm Beach's pioneer families.
Like Payne, Tabernacle initially operated in the Styx, the shantytown that sprang up in the 1890s at the north end of Palm Beach for the more than 2,000 Black workers at nearby hotels. After they were forced to leave Palm Beach, Tabernacle first set up at Clematis Street and Tamarind Avenue.
The next year, the trustees of the church offered free use of their building to the county School Board to establish a school for Black children. The church's history notes that the "first school for Negroes in Palm Beach County opened October 1, 1894 with 74 students."
The original church building was destroyed in a storm in 1902. The current building was constructed in 1925 at 801 Eighth St., at Division Avenue. It was built in the neo-Romanesque revival style and is the only one of that kind in the district and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
8. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial: The city has been completing a new, improved memorial for Reverend King, who would have been 92 this year. The monument beside the Intracoastal Waterway has been undergoing a $360,000 refurbishment that includes repairs to its fountain, replacement of granite panels, removal of a secondary wall,
relocating King quotes and events from his life, and adding lighting to improve safety.
The bronze bust of King was polished and cleaned as well.
9. The Alice Moore House, 801 4th St. When Alice E. Moore died in 2014 at 96, broken was a thread going back more than a century to the origins of both West Palm Beach and its oft-ignored Black legacy.
Moore taught for three decades at Roosevelt Elementary School, now a middle school. She lived for 80 years at the white-picket-fenced house at 801 Fourth St., home of her foster parents, pioneers Haley and Alice Mickens, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
She excelled at Industrial High School and graduated in 1946 from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where a dorm is named for her.
Haley Mickens had helped start Palm Beach County's first Black church, Payne Chapel AME Church, in 1893. Alice Mickens, with foster daughter Moore by her side,
helped open theaters to Blacks and boost school standards. She was on
the board of Bethune-Cookman for more than 30 years.
West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency
401 Clematis Street,
West Palm Beach, FL 33401
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