In celebration of Black History Month, learn more about local African American history at the Wells’ Built Museum in downtown Orlando.
In the shadow of the Amway Center, the building that houses the Wells’ Built Museum of African American History seems unassuming. So much so that many Orlando residents may be surprised to learn that it was a hotel in the 1920s that saw the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson pass through its doors.
More than just a stop for various blues artists and baseball players, this building holds a significant spot in Orlando history as one of the only places where African Americans were welcomed to stay during a time when many of the city’s hotels barred them from renting a room.
Creating the Museum
Former state senator Geraldine F. Thompson founded the museum that currently occupies the first floor of the building after she started collecting memorabilia related to African American history during her time as the director of the Equal Opportunity Office and assistant to the president at Valencia College. She was specifically interested in collecting information and items that were of importance to local African American history, which she found difficult because a lot of it was not well documented.
“I couldn’t find information for the things I was doing at Valencia — wasn’t in the library, wasn’t in the textbook, wasn’t in the curriculum,” she says.
In the early 1990s she created the Association to Preserve African American Society, History and Tradition Inc., known as PAST, and the organization began looking for a venue to display Thompson’s growing collection of items.
“It got to be quite a lot of material,” she says.
When members of PAST discovered the background of a building on West South Street, at the edge of the historically black neighborhood of Parramore, it was clear they had found the perfect spot for the museum. The group moved forward with purchasing the building and rehabilitating it.
The Building’s History
Dr. William Monroe Wells, a prominent African American physician, moved to Orlando in 1917 after completing his training at Meharry Medical College. During this time, white physicians did not treat African American patients. As one of the few black physicians in the area, Wells treated much of the African American population, including delivering an estimated 5,000 babies in Orlando.
In 1926, he received a building permit to erect a hotel in the Parramore neighborhood. Parramore was plotted in the 1880s by Orlando mayor James P. Parramore as a development for African Americans employed in the households of white Orlandoans, according to “Historic Orange County: The Story of Orlando and Orange County, a publication of the Historical Society of Central Florida.”
Soon after, Wells built the South Street Casino right next to his hotel. It was a popular place for African American performers on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a network of venues in the United States where it was safe for African American entertainers to perform. The casino also featured a basketball court and skating rink for young adults, although these children were expected to leave by 8 p.m. so the adults could enjoy that night’s entertainment.
A Trip to the Museum
Before your next Magic game at the Amway Center or show at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, you might consider planning a visit with the kids to the Wells’ Built museum beforehand. It is located only a few minutes from both venues.
When you enter the museum, head to the left to view a short video on Dr. Wells and how the museum came to be. Then wander the first floor where you’ll find an eclectic mix of artifacts related to African American history, local artifacts and histories, displays on the Civil Rights movement, and African art on loan from collectors.
After you have explored the site, head upstairs to view a 1930s-era hotel guestroom. While most of the upstairs has now been converted into offices, the museum has kept one room as an example of what Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway would have lodged in for the night.
The Future of Displaying the Past
Thompson says a challenge that this modest museum has encountered is making it more user-friendly in a world where social media and technology have made people come to expect an interactive experience. On top of that, Thompson says PAST, which operates the museum, would like to change some of the exhibits on a routine basis to give visitors a reason to come back.
But for now, this museum should be on the list of every Orlando resident to see as it is one of the few places in town that details such a breadth of local history that is not found anywhere else.
“As an educator and a person who has an interest in African American history, I think our history needs to be more inclusive,” Thompson says. “And it needs to include the contributions of more African Americans. It needs to reflect what America is like.”
The Wells’ Built Museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.