Opa-Locka Loses Bid to Host Museum of Black history

The proposed location for the Florida Museum of Black History in Opa-locka remained a potential site for the new facility, although it received less attention during the task force’s final discussions compared to Eatonville and St. Johns County. (Ten North Group)

oposed Florida Museum of Black History has ended in defeat. In the end, a state task force designated to select a location battled it out between Eatonville and St. John’s County.

Eatonville, founded in 1887 by former slaves, is the oldest existing Black municipality in the country and the birthplace of the celebrated novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. It’s situated in Orange County, which boasts a well-developed tourist economy, and is easily accessible through an extensive highway network.

The task force, however passed up a chance to place the institution in Eatonville in favor of St. Johns County, where Martin Luther King once rallied protests against segregation in the city of St. Augustine but where the site would require extensive development including roadbuilding.

The 5-4 vote was hotly contested, with Rep. Bruce Antone – the Democratic state House member from Orange County who sponsored the legislation creating the museum – complaining that the panel hadn’t considered all of the angles, including how the museum would be marketed, the stories it would tell and how it would generate income.

Democratic State Rep. Bruce Antone from Orange County voiced concerns during last week’s task force meeting about the selection of St. John’s County as the site of a proposed Florida Museum of Black History. (Florida House )

“We were supposed to be making a decision on a museum, and so we haven’t even talked about the content of the museum,” Antone said during the meeting.

He is not a member of the task force but spoke during public comment.

“Now we just put a roadblock in place,” he said. “Now we’re going to go another year or two doing nothing. This was a huge decision for the state of Florida. A huge decision, and I knew we had one chance to get this right, and I think today we blew it, and I know we blew it.

Ultimately, task force chair Geraldine Thompson, a Democratic state senator from Orange County, couldn’t garner enough votes for Eatonville, which she’d been rooting for from early in the process.

The vote ratified an earlier ranking that favored the St. Johns site, ahead of Eatonville and Opa-locka in Miami-Dade County. Opa-locka is regarded as the first city in northern Miami-Dade to integrate and claims Helen Miller as the first Black woman mayor in the state.

During a four-hour meeting, members of the task force argued over how the Eatonville and St. Johns sites could function in the long run without financial support from the Legislature and the process by which St. Johns got to the top. The factors members considered included the sites’ historical significance, the state of the regional economy, how many people live in the area, transportation infrastructure, availability of local funding matches and partnerships for educational programming.

Once the group chose St. Johns, members debated whether they would launch a study into how to get the museum running. They didn’t decide, meaning more work lies ahead when the group meets again June 5. The task force wants to meet twice in June, but the final meeting hasn’t been scheduled.

The group must deliver a report to Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative leaders by the end of June, leaving about a month to finish this work. There’s no guarantee the museum will become a reality because the Legislature gets final say on whether to actually establish the museum and its location.

During the debate, Antone and other members of the public brought up concerns regarding the undeveloped parcel St. Johns pitched for the museum’s location. Eatonville planned to make 10 acres available in a mixed-use zone for the project. It was the only option connected to an interstate highway.

A sketch of the Florida Normal & Industrial Institute, which is now Florida Memorial University. The Johns County plan assumes that the HBCU would provide 17 of its 40 acres for the proposed Florida Museum of Black History site, located 2.5 miles from the center of historic downtown St. Augustine. (Courtesy of FMU)

The Johns County plan assumes that Florida Memorial University, one of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities, would provide 17 of its 40 acres, located 2.5 miles from the center of historic downtown St. Augustine.

The meeting provided the public with its first chance to see specific comparisons between the St. Johns plan and those from Eatonville and Opa-locka, including a study by Andrew Chin, an architecture and engineering professor at Florida A&M University.

“St. Johns County knows that change is coming,” he said. “I think the benefit of that space is that the land can be rezoned for the purposes and surrounding uses that would best-interest or best serve a museum.”

Chin acknowledged that planners would need to navigate multiple contingencies associated with the St. Johns site but added: “I think until we know that something can’t be built, I think we assume something can be built.”

While Opa-locka, in theory, remained a possibility during last week’s meeting, none of the task force members advocated for that location.

Republican State Rep. Kiyan Michael from Duval County influenced the task force’s decision favoring St. Johns County over Eatonville as the site of a proposed Florida Museum of Black History. (Florida House )

When Florida was under Spanish rule, Fort Mose in St. Johns served as a settlement for enslaved people fleeing the Carolinas. During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, King led demonstrations to end segregation that drew national attention. He was arrested and held in the county jail. A house he was staying in drew gunfire.

In its proposal, Eatonville leaned on the legacy of author Hurston and the town’s proximity to Ocoee, site of a massacre in 1920 on an election night when a white mob killed dozens of Black people.

As things stood, St. Johns scored the highest rating at 96.78 on a 110-point scale, and Eatonville sat at 95.33. A 78 score from Republican Rep. Kiyan Michael of Duval County lowered Eatonville’s rating.



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *