Each February, the Polk County History Center (PCHC) releases their annual evergreen guide called “Discovering Black History in Polk County.” The guide takes visitors through the exhibits, touching on the Black men and women who made history in Polk County and throughout Central Florida as pioneers and leaders in community, industry, services, military, and the courts.
Curator of Education and Visitor Engagement for the History Center, Jayme Jamison, notes the guide has been a staple at the museum for the better part of ten years. It changes annually to reflect temporary exhibits or a narrative change based on direction from the American Association for State and Local History or the American Alliance of Museums. Guests interested in “Discovering Black History in Polk County” can simply check-in at the PCHC rotunda and request a guide during visiting hours. There is no admission charge to explore the museum and meander through Polk County’s past.
The History Center is housed in the Old Polk County Courthouse. The site dates back to the late 1800s and the original building to 1908. In the 1990s, the museum opened to the public, providing exhibitions about Polk County’s history. Traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian or Florida Humanities Council often come through the PCHC as they partner with the state humanities council. The history center routinely offers programming for its visitors. Current programming open for visitor participation includes a Genealogy Speaker Series centered around researching family history. The other visitor program is called Zoom and Vroom, a post-pandemic twist on what was formerly a lunch-and-learn series that would feature a topic of discussion and question and answer segment. Now, topics are presented virtually every month with question and answer opportunities, and include a driving map with half to full-day routes of different historic sites related to the topic that families can follow.
Coinciding with Black History Month, the Zoom and Vroom theme for February is ‘Go West Polk Countian: Exploring Kathleen, Lakeland, and Mulberry,’ spotlighting historic Black American communities and sites of historical significance.
The comprehensive guide walks guests through the history center’s galleries, providing a narrative to people and points of significance to Black history in Polk County. The back of the guide features a section titled “Explore the Heritage Trail” with the address and information of sites including Florence Villa, Pughsville, and Moorehead Markers, as well as the L.B. Brown House, Lake Wales North Avenue Historic District, and the African American Heritage Museum.
Discovery starts on the first floor, west wing, in The Pioneer Exhibit. “Florida was a frontier,” explained Jamison. “If you were brave enough to set up a homestead between the wild animals and what ended up becoming the Seminole Wars, you were rewarded with land. It was called the Armed Occupation Act.”
“The Seminole Wars were very influential in the state of Florida. There were three wars fought, and part of what came out of that was the establishment of new communities. Some of the Black communities in Florida were runaway slaves; they were known as ‘Black Seminoles,’” she said. “From that, Florida becomes a state, and Polk County becomes a county right before the Civil War breaks out. What we see is a mix of freedmen, Black Seminoles, all converging in Polk County.”
A man of note from that period is Prince Johnson. According to Jamison, Johnson was an enslaved man in Florida during the Civil War. When he was freed after the war, he continued to work with Jacob Summerlin in the cattle industry, eventually acquiring land. “Because he was a land-owning man, he was able to participate in the charter to make Bartow a city,” said Jamison. The charter for the City of Bartow, signed by Prince Johnson, is kept in the upstairs historical library. “It’s phenomenal to see that there were not just Black men voting in the community, but they were participating. They were the community. Prince Johnson is a great example of that,” she said.
According to Jamison, another black pioneer is Robert B. Patterson, famous for his work with the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. “While they specialized in helping Black Americans obtain life insurance and mortgages, the company also established American Beach. Located on Amelia Island, American Beach was one of only a few beaches in the Southeast open to Black Americans and would have likely been featured in the Green-Book.”
Historic Black communities Moorehead, Florence Villa, and Pughsville, are featured on this leg of the tour. Hanging here are a few shots from The LaFrancine Burton Collection compiled by Lakeland resident and historian LaFrancine Burton. Her entire collection, including over 200 items, can be accessed digitally through the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library website. According to that website, “It contains a variety of publications, articles, and photographs she has collected over the years. The artifacts within are a tribute to African-American history and experience in Polk County. The former African American community of Moorehead and its residents are the primary subjects of the photographs. The articles vary in topic from current events to historical events and more.”
“We don’t have as many artifacts from the Black community that we would like to have to make really robust exhibits,” noted Jamison. If any families in the area have something they would like to donate, contact the museum to explore donation options.
The upstairs library also holds books about the different communities like The History of Florence Villa, by Ulysses J. Johnson III, and another on the Moorehead/Lakeland area called The Evolution of African-Americans Lakeland, Florida (1883-2014) by Neriah Roberts, which Jamison called “an anthology of the who’s who of Black history in the area.”
The Pioneer Exhibit flows into the Industry Gallery and the next stop on the guide. The dominant industries in Polk County historically were railroad, phosphate, citrus, cattle, and turpentine. Included in the guide is the mention of the work of a prolific Black author on turpentine production in Davenport. “During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration had a writers initiative where they sent writers out across the country to capture the American experience. The writer that came to Polk County was Zora Neale Hurston,” she said. “Zora Neale Hurston came to Polk County, to Davenport, and she observed what life was like working in the turpentine mills. From that, she wrote a book called Mules and Men. […] It really became this great collection of American folklore,” said Jamison.
After writing for the Works Progress Administration, Neale Hurston wrote a play entitled Polk County. The historical musical ended up in the Library of Congress, where it was “discovered” in the archives in 2002. Schools began picking up the play and performing Zora Neale Hurston’s Polk County.
Significant to the citrus industry is renowned citrus horticulturist Dan Laramore. Laramore studied citrus out west and came to Florida as the head horticulturist for the Inmans.
Next is the Community Gallery, looking at Polk’s Black athletes, which Jamison described as “a significant source of recognition and pride for the county.” Athletes across many sports are recognized in the gallery. Athletes like Tracy McGrady, Otis Birdsong, Ken Riley, Ray Lewis, Ralph ‘Big Cat’ Johnson, brothers James ‘Big Jim’ and Leander ‘Schoolboy’ Tugerson, Rod Smart, and Alvin Harper. The last of whom was a multi-sport athlete from Frostproof who played for the Dallas Cowboys and is widely recognized for his iconic touchdown celebration where he dunked the football over the goalpost during Super Bowl XXVII in 1993.
The Services Gallery focuses on the types of service you would find in the county and municipalities like the schools, fire department, police, doctors, etc. For instance, “Eddie Groover Sr. was the first Black officer hired by the Bartow Police Department in 1963,” said Jamison.
A champion for school desegregation was Althea Margaret Daily Mills. Born in Florence Villa, Daily Mills went away to live with family and attended a desegregated high school. She came back to Polk County some ten years following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Realizing her son was slated to attend a segregated high school, Daily Mills contacted an attorney. “She brought about a civil suit and combined with a couple of others in Polk County, they were able to force the Polk County School Board at that time to make all haste to desegregate,” said Jamison. She became the first Black resident in Winter Haven to be a career post office worker, eventually becoming the manager. On December 21, 2020, Congress passed a bill signed by the president to rename the post office in Florence Villa after Daily Mills.
The last exhibit to explore before heading upstairs is Women’s Fashion from the early 1900s through 1930s, coordinating with an exhibition on the second floor about the 19th Amendment. Dresses worn by prolific civil rights activists sit before striking photos of women making history. The Polk County History Center worked with the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. to reproduce a series of photographs from the “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence” segment of the “Because of Her Story” exhibition. “This exhibit looks at some women on the national level that influenced civic participation and voting rights,” said Jamison. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, the American voting rights, women’s rights, and civil rights activist. Also of note are Mary Terrell and Mary Haywood Cooper. Both women pioneered the 19th Amendment, championing that all women deserved a right to participate in their government. Jamison pointed out Mary McLeod Bethune, touching on “The school and education efforts that she made to help promote community leadership” and her influence in the voting rights movement.
Open on February 2, the upstairs Military Gallery spans the Seminole Wars through Operation Desert Storm and the War on Terror. Jamison pointed out a photo. “During the Spanish American War, we had encampments of soldiers that came through Lakeland on their way further south in Florida. One of the groups that came through Lakeland was the Buffalo Soldiers – the all-Black U.S. Tenth Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army.”
Lace Gallemore was a hero during WWI. He served as a cook when a battle broke out. “When things were not looking good, he took up arms and bravely fought to help secure the position of his unit and saved lives,” she said. Guests can admire a collection of memorabilia from Earl ‘Jack’ Thompson, a Winter Haven resident who served and was wounded during Vietnam and awarded a purple heart. Also in the exhibit are photos of a young Claude Woodruff that show a young man of allegedly only 14, taking up arms to serve in the Marine Corps during WWII.
The Arts and Culture Gallery displays information on the L.B. Brown House, the literary contributions of Zora Neale Hurston, the artwork of Highwaymen Robert Butler, and the musical contributions of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley.
Guests can walk the original floors and see the judge’s bench of the primary courtroom, built in 1908. “When we’re talking about the country from 1908 through the 1960s, unfortunately, we also have to talk about segregation, and that was the purpose of the balcony,” said Jamison of the balcony overlooking the courtroom, which was used in years past to segregate the audience.
Beyond the 1960s, diversity in the courts grew. Timothy Koon was the first Black judge to serve in Polk County, and James B. Sanderlin, the first Black judge to serve on the second district court of appeals for the State of Florida. Community leader Larry R. Jackson (who has a branch of the Lakeland Public Library named after him) was the first Black attorney for the City of Lakeland. Jackson was also the first Black American to run for judge.
Karla Foreman Wright was the first Black woman to serve as a judge on the Tenth Judicial Circuit Courts of the Polk County Court. Her photo is joined by Peggy A. Quince, the first Black woman appointed to the Florida Supreme Court, who later became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court
Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library
Concluding the tour, guests can explore what was once the law library, now the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library. The library is home to an extensive collection of research books, family bibles, and other tools for tracking down family history, ancestry, even historic properties. “All of this information that we’ve looked at today comes from our collection of historical documents and archives,” explained Jamison.
These resources for researching individual or family histories don’t only cover the county but also a sizable collection spanning the United States’ southeastern region.
Research and Genealogy Historian Preston Petermeier detailed the next segment in the Genealogy Speaker Series, which will be a deep dive into African American genealogy. “Our program for next month is actually part two, of last August. Annette Burke Lyttle virtually did a presentation for us on the introduction beginning African American research,” he said. “In February is the intermediate level. She’s going to come and do the next step. In the first one, she took us back to tracing African American genealogy back to the Civil War, 1870 Census. From there, she’s going into more of the different records of the Reconstruction Period.
The Polk County History Center and the Historical and Genealogical Library are invaluable resources for discovering and understanding the area’s history. “I try to emphasize that yes, there are people on the national level who did big, important things, but who are the people in your community that had an influence? Whether that’s Dr. Simpson, who was the first Black doctor in Lakeland, or Rosabelle Blake, who Blake Academy is named for, a prolific educator, or Dan Laramore, Ulysses Johnson or some of the people who came out of Florence Villa,” said Jamison. “National heroes are great – local heroes are even better.
For information on the “Discovering Black History in Polk County” guide, local Black heroes, the history center, library, or programming, check out Polk County History Center website and stop in for a visit.
Polk County History Center
100 E. Main St., Bartow