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Luster African American Heritage Museum

Bartow brothers and founders of the Luster African American Heritage Museum, Charles Luster and Dr. Harvey Lester say their commitment to community enrichment was a seed planted by their father. He taught them the importance of giving back, and the pair have spent a lifetime doing so and planting seeds of their own. “Sometimes when you plant a seed, it doesn’t grow immediately – some things take years to grow,” Luster said.


Charles Luster & Dr. Harvey Lester

Dr. Harvey Lester graduated from Union Academy High School in 1966. Three days later, he joined the military, where he spent 30 years and three months. Lester worked in logistics, infantry, and as a lay pastor in the service and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resources, a Master’s degree in Family Counseling, and a Ph.D. in Theology. The Vietnam veteran was honored with a Purple Heart and retired as a Sergeant Major. He returned to Polk County in 1996. Dr. Lester served as a chaplain at Winter Haven Hospital and Lakeland Regional Medical Center and pastored a church in Plant City. He was later inducted into the Bartow and Union High School Halls of Fame.


Lester’s oldest brother, Charles Luster, was born in 1941. Luster, also a Union Academy graduate, worked for Polk General Hospital as the first African American Environmental Manager and retired after 34 years. Luster also retired from the school system after 30 years. “I did that working 16 hours a day for 30 years,” he said. He rejoined the school system and has worked for the last 25 years as a part-time custodian. “This way, I have extra money to buy things for the museum,” Luster said. Many of the artifacts throughout the Luster African American Heritage Museum were purchased with money Luster has made working for the school.


LUSTER-ALL PASTORAL CARE AND CULTURAL CENTER


“It actually started with our father, who said we’ve got to give something back,” Luster said.

“He was very faithful and believed in God and believed in serving and said we always had to care for others as well as ourselves,” Lester said. “Even though we were poor, we were saying, what can we do [to help others]?”


This seed was planted in the brothers who sowed knowledge into the community. “We believe that knowledge is power,” Luster said. “We have a purpose here. It has allowed us to do anything we want to do, but there’s a certain thing that God wants us to do. To me, this is my blessing to give out this knowledge. It’s no good if I don’t give it away.”


When Dr. Harvey Lester returned home, he told his brother they were going to start a nonprofit providing education and a cultural museum. Lester oversaw the school and Luster the museum curation, and the two came together to run them both.


The brothers established Luster-All Pastoral Care and Cultural Center in 1996 as a nonprofit program that would “provide for the underserved and under-educated residents of Polk County so they may have an opportunity to experience educational success and achieve economic independence through vocational training and job placement, construction technology, culinary arts, health education, family counseling, community development, and cultural enrichment programs.”


The program trained students for over twenty years with a 95% services and vocational training completion rate and a 90% job placement rate. “We have done well even with a shoestring budget for twenty-something years. We’ve trained well over a thousand people,” Lester said.


Luster-All students have gone on to contribute to the community as nurse practitioners and registered nurses, earn advanced degrees in radiology and catering, provide military service, and start their own businesses. “We are grateful for that,” Lester said. “Every now and then, some come back and say we are a Luster-All girl or a Luster-All boy.”


Luster-All Training Center of Hope received various awards and recognitions over the years, including two Polk County proclamations in 2004 and 2017, a Spirit of Bartow Award, and recognition from the Florida Department of Health Board of Nursing for a 100% graduation rate in 2014 compared to the State of Florida graduation rate of 63.5%. Luster-All was honored with the Florida Association of Postsecondary School and College (FAPSC) School of the Year Award in 2006-2007, an honorable mention letter from Governor Jeb Bush, and a congratulatory letter from Governor Charlie Crist.


Though the school closed in 2020 due to a lack of funding, its impact over more than two decades is measurable in more than lives changed. According to the Luster-All Training Center of Hope and Cultural Center, “Student taxable income earned over the past 21 years has amounted to $18M in the county.”

While launching the school, the brothers began developing the Luster African American Heritage Museum with the goal “to educate the public about the importance of the African American historical legacy in Polk County and the Central Florida region by empowering and enriching visitors with knowledge of the extensive and valuable contributions African Americans have made to Polk County, the State of Florida, and our nation.”


The Luster African American Heritage Museum opened at the old Polk General Hospital, where it stayed for almost six years. It has moved several times over the years, but has settled into a more permanent home on Summerlin Street in Bartow.


TURNING A PAGE


History has no value if you don’t learn from it,” Dr. Lester said. That’s why the brothers have worked to provide the community with this cultural resource. The museum’s layout flows like a book, chapter by chapter of African American history, atrocity, contribution, art, and excellence. Charles Luster was deliberate with its layout. “It’s like turning a page. First, we’re going to go into Africa itself,” he said. “Most museums start with slavery and go on, but we started with Africa for the African American people to know their DNA. Once you know where you come from, then you know who you are,” he said.


Exhibits flow from the great kings of Africa to African trades and cultures. Beyond a beaded partition, relics including intricately adorned instruments, tools, ebony wood, statues, photographs, and detailed information about people, events, traditions, and customs line the room. “It’s a reading museum,” Luster explained. “You have to come many times.”


Just outside that exhibit room is a sizable replica slave ship. Luster crafted figures to represent enslaved Africans, illustrating revoltingly inhumane conditions. “They were packed in the ship like sardines,” he said. “Any space they had a space, they put them in.” Another exhibit details slavery and plantation life. “People say slaves were taken from Africa. This is not true. People were taken from Africa and made into slaves,” Luster said.


Luster moved on, past Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman to a section of ‘Bartow Notables.’ He pointed to photographs of African American doctors, city commissioners, judges, veterans, principals, mayors, builders, trailblazers, and city founders. He pointed out Bartow’s Palm Theatre and dance hall, built by successful businessman Tom Burnett which drew crowds from surrounding communities, as far as Tampa, every Friday to see musicians like Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, BB King, and James Brown.

An exhibit on segregation includes anti-Black imagery and racist stereotypes like Jim Crow dolls, “mammy” caricatures, and dehumanizing advertisements.


Luster and Lester attended Union Academy, a then-segregated school, and had many personal accounts of racial oppression to share. “Know your history but don’t let it be a burden to you,” Luster said. “It’s not only my history. We say, ‘African American history,’ but it’s American history.”

He motioned to a copy of “The Green Book,” a guide for African American travelers. “I remember when we were kids, my dad would say, ‘Get up, it’s time to go,’ and I’d say, ‘It’s 5 o’clock in the morning.’” Young Luster wondered why they had to leave so early. “He didn’t tell us that we had to be at a certain place at a certain time. If you weren’t at this place at this time, you can’t eat today because the Black restaurant would close.”


Then there were the cruelties of Jim Crow “etiquette.” “I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk holding my wife’s hand, and that’s my wife. But that was a law,” Luster said. “You learn all this stuff, and then you have to go through life. PTSD, I think we had that before the war. It was little things.” Studying the exhibit on civil rights lined with photos of great leaders and speakers like Martin Luther King Jr., Luster shared a story. “My sister got baptized in a lake because churches didn’t have a pool at that time,” he said. “The whites would get baptized on one side of the lake, and the Blacks would get baptized on the other side of the lake. Same water, but we couldn’t get baptized in the same spot.”


Another sprawling exhibit dedicated to the military acknowledges the contributions of Black service members and military heroes throughout history, including the Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, and Triple Nickles. “Do you know who that is?” Charles asked, nodding to a photo of two uniformed military men. It was Harvey Lester and Charles’s son. The pair were in the military simultaneously.


The Luster African American Heritage Museum’s media center has some 500 books available for check-out and a computer for students to do research. The next room is dedicated to education, including the brothers’ alma mater, Union Academy, a Rosenwald school built in 1928. Luster remembered being taught by the first white teachers at his school in the late sixties. The room displays school desks, a typewriter, and abounding yearbook photos of accomplished graduates and athletes. “We had a powerhouse football team,” Luster said. The Union Academy running back hoped for a tough nickname like ‘Tiger,’ ‘Killer,’ or ‘Big Red.’ “I wanted a name like that, but they called me ‘Sweet Thang’ because I weighed about 145 lbs,’” he said, prompting a laugh from his brother.


In addition to its many exhibitions, the museum has a lecture room where they hold talks and show movies.


Lester, Luster, and museum volunteers also give back through community events. Before New Year’s, they gave out collard greens sourced from a Black farmer and black-eyed peas and cornbread donated by the Mulberry Walmart.


On Sunday, February 5, 2023, from 1-4 pm, the museum, in partnership with Main Street Bartow, will host a “Drum Circle” celebration honoring Olushola Camaro. The free community event will feature food and retail vendors, dancing in the street, and Kuumba Dancers and Drummers. Bring your lawn chairs.

Admission to the museum is free, but donations are appreciated. The only funding the Luster African American Heritage Museum receives is a small stipend from a Statewide Network of African American education organizations, contributions from Black Voters Matter, and patron donations used for curation, development of the exhibits, and planned educational programs.


Poignant words posted towards the museum exit read, “History is not for you to like or not like. It is there for you to learn from it, and if it offends you, even better because you are less likely to repeat it. It’s not yours to erase. It belongs to us all.”


Photographs by Amy Sexson


Luster African American Heritage Museum

585 E Summerlin St, Bartow
(863) 800-6872
FB: African American Heritage Museum



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