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Capital campaign starts for new Black Culture Center

$22 million arts and history facility to be build at Clemente Park in Dunbar

By CJ HADDAD - | Sep 9, 2021

Artist’s rendition of the planned $22 million Black Culture Center to be built at Clemente Park in Dunbar. PROVIDED


A years-in-the-making plan that will celebrate the history and culture of Southwest Florida’s Black community is now working toward fruition.

This past Monday, the Lee County Black History Society official kicked off a capital campaign to raise $22 million for a Black Culture Center at Clemente Park in Dunbar. The three-floor center will be a way to showcase history and serve as a community space for creative minds.

“The idea came up a couple of years ago in just looking at the park, the park’s location and the city’s commitment to developing the park and its three phases,” said Chairman of the Lee County Black History Society, Charles Barnes. “We thought it would be beneficial to build a Black Cultural Center. Our mission statement is to preserve, educate and bring awareness to local Black history and national Black history.”

As part of the City of Fort Myers’ comprehensive plan for Clemente Park, Barnes said residents have expressed their desire for the construction of a Black Cultural Center in the expansive urban green space available.

The first floor of the center would include an art gallery with large glass windows that would showcase the gallery to both pedestrians and vehicle traffic. The second floor would be a community space for events and performances and the third floors would include music studios where local residents could come and produce music, podcasts or photography.

“It will be a place that we can utilize art and music, but also display a place not just for us in this community, but tourists traveling here,” Barnes said. “There’s always talk about growth and development throughout the city of Fort Myers, but do we get those eyes into our community to see what we’re all about as a people.”

Barnes said for the center to become reality, $22 million needs to be raised to move forward and they are looking at multiple funding sources. Community leaders such as Fort Myers City Councilmember Teresa Watkins Brown (Ward 1) and local architect Ted Sottong have already stepped up. Watkins Brown even kicked off the funding of the capital campaign by donating $25,000.

“We envision this as a state-of-the-art Cultural Center, a place where everybody wants to come and enjoy our city,” said Watkins Brown in a release.

Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson added, “This is a project that we should get behind. We need to do our best to fund it because it’s a project that’s important to the entire city. It is an investment in the city, in our youth, and in our future.”

Barnes added that the LCBHC’s current space at the Williams Academy Black History Museum at Clemente Park is not a large enough arena to continue their work of preserving artifacts and bringing education to the forefront.

The museum opened in January 2001 (LCBHS founded in 1994) and is the 1942 addition to the original building. It is one of the few early Twentieth-Century wood frame schoolhouses still standing in Lee County, LCBHC officials said. The original Williams Academy built in 1912 was Lee County’s first government-funded school for Black students. The school was named after J. S. Williams, supervisor of what was then called the Colored Schools. Black students throughout Lee County and Punta Gorda attended school at the academy.

The museum was restored following state and national preservation and restoration standards. The building is divided into two rooms: one room displays historical memorabilia of local Black citizens and the history and culture of the Black community; the other room is an interactive classroom staged as a 1940s segregated southern classroom for Black students. Officials said it provides a visual contrast to the facilities provided to white students. One of the chief purposes of the Williams Academy Black History Museum is to provide educational opportunities to citizens of Lee County and surrounding areas.

“What we have been able to do through the Black History organization and the Williams Academy Black History Museum is bringing attention to that deficit within the culture,” said LCBHS founder Janice Cass in a release. “With an expansion, that will be a great opportunity for young artists, young musicians, people to have a place where they can demonstrate and showcase their talents.”

Barnes said he envisions the new center as a place for members of the local Black community to share their creative expression, whether that be playwrights, musicians, dancers, or artists.

“Our kids are very creative (and are) into music, video, technology,” Barnes said. “We want people to come in and allow them to be creative, especially the younger generation.”

Barnes said the city budget is poised to handle half of the $22 million price tag, and that other donations from organizations and businesses (even material donations, not dollars) are coming in. He hopes they can reach their goal.

“This project is coming from the community, so we want to find a way to make it happen,” Barnes said. “It’s amazing to see who has stepped forward and reached out so far.”

If the center gains final approval, Barnes said it will take around 3-5 years to complete.

Sottong, the local architect who has produced initial plans and renderings for the Cultural Center, said, “As you’re coming down Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, you’re going to see it off in the distance and it doesn’t look like anything else around it.”

The Lee County Black History Society, Inc. is a 501C(3) organization and established to provide a way for African Americans in Lee County to recognize and celebrate Black History Month, as well as creating a Black History Museum in Fort Myers. The society aims to preserve and commemorate the cultural and educational contributions by both locally and nationally known Black people.

Barnes said they have created a steering committee made up of board members and stakeholders on plans for the center moving forward.

To support the campaign, donations can be mailed or dropped off to Lee County Black History Society at 1936 Henderson Avenue, Fort Myers, FL 33916. For more information, call 239-332-8778, email blackhistory@leecountyblackhistorysociety.org or visit www.leecountyblackhistorysociety.org.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj