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Black History in Daytona Beach

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What do Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Howard Thurman, and NBA Star Vince Carter and Jackie Robinson have in common? They have roots in Daytona Beach, Florida. 

Daytona Beach offers a wealth of Afrocentric historical and cultural points of interest, each lending their own unique history and perspective into black history in the area.

Freemanville

The city of Port Orange was once called Freemanville, and it was here that an estimated 500 freed slaves came not long after the Civil War, another 1,000 folks flocking here soon afterwards. Many took jobs at the sugar mill here, which was as a major business enterprise and boon for the area back in the day.

Today, not much remains of Freemanville, except for the old cemetery and Mount Moriah Baptist Church.

The cemetery is now an overgrown, headstone-less parcel of land on private property, however, there is an effort underway to restore the land and designate and honor the gravesites of those who have passed.

Mount Moriah Baptist Church, built in 1911, is now the last remaining structure in Freemanville. Most of the descendants of the blacks that lived here back in the day have left, but many have remained and are still active in its multicultural congregation.

Many of the church and other community members are devoted to preserving the history of Freemanville, and sharing its legacy with the many visitors who come from across the country each year. One such effort is the annual Freemanville Day celebration, held the second Tuesday in February.

In the town of New Smyrna, be sure to stop by the Mary J. Harrell Black History Museum

Situated in a beautiful Catholic Church built in 1899, the structure was restored about 10 years ago and transformed into a museum that today holds a bevy of artifacts, photos, books, memorabilia and other items relative to the history of the black experience in this part of the state.

Information about the first school for black children in the county—Chisholm High School—the Florida East Coast Railroad, African American inventors, educators, entrepreneurs, athletes, politicians and more is just the beginning of the experience here.

Located in the heart of the African American community of DeLand, the African-American Museum of the Arts is the only museum in the area devoted primarily to African American cultures and art.

Founded in 1994, the museum features the creative works of both established and emerging artists in numerous permanent and temporary exhibits with works from the Caribbean and numerous countries in Africa.

“Bethune-town”

One could very easily rename the Daytona Beach area “Bethune-town,” due to the many entities that pay homage to the one of the 20th Century’s most prominent Civil Rights Leaders – Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.

The most prominent of these is Bethune-Cookman University. Established in 1904, the university is named after its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, who resided in the Daytona Beach area for most of her life.

The sprawling campus of 3,600 students encompasses numerous beautiful historic and new structures including her home, gravesite and gardens, the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center and an awe-inspiring bronze state of Dr. Bethune that depicts just how larger than life she truly was.

The home, which is currently undergoing restoration, is designated as a National Historic Landmark and highlights many interesting artifacts and memorabilia related to her life and work. This is the last home where Dr. Bethune resided before her death in 1955, and she is now eternally at rest behind the home in the stunning gravesite and gardens which are lovingly maintained by the university.

Howard, Vince and Jackie

Also listed on National Register of Historic Places is the Howard Thurman House, named after the famed theologian and Civil Rights activist born in the home in 1899.

Thurman, who held positions as teacher and Dean of Chapel at Morehouse College, Howard University and Boston University, was an early mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King for Thurman’s focus on what he called “action-oriented nonviolence.”

Built in 1888, the home is a two-story Frame Vernacular structure set amidst soaring trees in one of the area’s oldest residential neighborhoods.

Daytona Beach love Olympic Gold Medalist and former NBA Star Vince Carter, who was born here in 1977, attended schools throughout the area and graduated from Mainland High School.

Carter’s philanthropic efforts to give back to the community who inspired and nurtured him as a young man and later as an adult include the Embassy of Hope Foundation, designed to assist children and their families in Florida, New Jersey and Toronto, and the Vince Carter Athletic Center. The Center is actually the gymnasium at Mainland High School, which the Volusia County School District named in his honor for his $2.5 million donation to the school.

And last but not least, it would be impossible to talk about Daytona Beach without mentioning the legendary Jackie Robinson.

It was in Daytona Beach (Robinson had been banned from playing in other parts of the state) that Robinson debuted with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers Triple-A farm club in 1946. And the rest is history.

Home of the Daytona Cubs minor league baseball team, Jackie Robinson Ballpark (formerly Daytona City Island Ballpark and renamed in Robinson’s honor in 1989) is just across the waterway overlooking beautiful Beach Street.

Out front, there is a poignant bronze statue of Robinson reaching down to two adoring child fans. Inside, along the main interior walkway and pavilion areas are descriptive signage and photos depicting Robinson’s athletic forays in track and field and basketball, as well as baseball and about his family life and other interests.

The ballpark is a moving tribute to this legend, the first to break the color barrier in professional sports in this country.

From Mary McLeod Bethune to Howard Thurman, and Jackie Robinson, Freemanville, New Smyrna and Mount Moriah, Daytona Beach has a great story to tell about America’s black history. 

Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin

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