|The Blanchard House African American Museum is located at 406 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd., in Punta Gorda.|
PUNTA GORDA -- The women who volunteer at the Blanchard House Museum are living history. They are authors, visionaries, doctors and educators, all sharing a deep connection to their community, personally linked to the antiquity of each generation they teach. The museum has a host of great exhibits, of course, but it's the stories and lives of these women that tell the real story.
In 1997, Bernice Russell purchased the Blanchard House, which was built in 1925, with the intention of creating an institution that would preserve the black history in the small community of Punt Gorda.
In the late 1800s, African American heritage was a big part of the developing city. Black business owners employed both whites and blacks and midwives aided expecting mothers, no matter the color of their skin. Bernice wanted these treasured stories told by residents in order to provide the public with a much deeper understanding of the community as a whole.
However, Bernice died before the project could come to fruition. The house fell into the hands of her daughter, Dr. Martha Bireda. Continuing her mother’s legacy, Martha established the Bernice A. Russell CDC and founded the museum in 2004.
On my first visit to the Blanchard House, I met Eunice Wiley. At first, she wasn’t overly friendly, but something about her intrigued me.
“Eunice,” I said. “That is an unusual name. I like it.”
“You should,” she said with conviction. “It took my mother eight days to name me.”
I pressed for more information, but Eunice had a way of keeping me wanting. She was guarded, but engaging at the same time. She told me that her parents had a tradition of waiting eight days to name their children; that way, they could reap a sense of personality from each baby. Eunice meant “winged one,” she said.
Her parents' intuition seemed right on track. Eunice would go on to be the first and only black principal ever in Charlotte County, a title that Eunice doesn’t like to claim. Maybe that’s because she is so much more.
She showed me the new exhibit at the museum; it was a timeline of escaped slaves in Florida with some of the most detailed information about their integration with the Seminoles I have ever seen. The exhibit chronicled the development of these maroon communities, or tribes of racially melded black Native Americans and their migration throughout the state.
As impressed as I was by the display, I couldn’t help my attention from returning to Eunice. I probed a little further, wanting to know more about her.
“I’m one of them you know,” she said. “My ancestors were Creek Indians.”
Almost immediately I could recognize the Native American traits in her face. Her high cheekbones, the shape of her eyes; it was almost as if her genetic heritage appeared before me.
That’s when she described the pilgrimage she had taken with her sister. Eunice is a direct descendent of those Creek and Seminole natives and escaped slaves that received British support to construct a fort on the Apalachicola River during a period of British rule over Florida from 1763-1783. In July of 1816, the fort was destroyed by U.S. naval forces, which killed all but a few inhabitants during the attack. Those survivors fled, migrating south and forming tribes on both the Manatee River and in Charlotte Harbor before finally emigrating to the Bahamas.
Eunice and two sisters traveled to see the fort where their ancestors were attacked. Eunice said her sister required that they all be more than 50 years old before they went. That way, there would be no distractions.
“There will be no shopping or sightseeing,” she said. “This is a history lesson.”
Eunice and her sisters followed the projected path of their ancestors down the Gulf Coast, finally landing in Charlotte Harbor. Most history books claim that the ancestors of those 30 or so escapees were long gone to the Bahamas, but Eunice was living proof of the flawed saga. Eunice said she never had any desire to leave Charlotte Harbor because it was what she described as “a little piece of Heaven here on earth.”
I left that day feeling more enlightened by a history lesson than I ever had before.
But then I went back on another day and received yet another, very different history lesson.
This time it was Sonia Thomas Wright who was working at the Blanchard House. She was seated in the small museum office at an antique desk. I introduced myself and she left me to my research. But I couldn’t help but strike up a conversation with her.
Sonja, unlike Eunice, was shy and didn’t like to talk much about herself. She had grown up in Punta Gorda in Trabue Woods, or the segregated black community located on Cochran Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard).
Sonja reminisced about her childhood, when the community was “led by the Holy Spirit and flavored by the blues.” It was a time before desegregation, when everything you wanted was “down the street” and black communities had no choice but to rely on their neighbors for goods and services.
Sonja experienced desegregation first hand. She was in the last graduating class of Baker Academy, the city’s only black school. She and others were apprehensive at the thought of attending the mostly white Charlotte High School, but she said she never had many problems there and was glad to be exposed to a better education.
Sonja left Florida and sought a career in Atlanta. She married, had children and worked as a government employee for 34 years. When it was time to retire, she longed for the society she had grown up in.
She relocated to Punt Gorda in 2005, but the busting village she had known as a child was gone. Many of the homes in her old neighborhood had been torn down and the guava and mango trees that she had once picked, were cut down. None of the businesses were just “down the street” anymore. Following desegregation, the black community had dispersed into a larger area marking the end to the collective African American area, which happened in so many other Florida cities.
Sonja began to reminisce; so much so, that she wrote a book. Down the Street was intended to be her personal insight into Punta Gorda’s black culture in the 1950s, when jazz and soul emanated through the un-airconditioned homes of Trabue Woods.
Today the old Cochran Street is quite. But with Sonja pointing out the old landmarks I got a sense of what it was like. I could almost hear the music coming from Ward’s Bar and smell BBQ cooking at Gollman’s.
So, two visits, two different history lessons, told from the mouths of the women who lived it. The museum is filled with exhibits and books and all the things you would expect at a museum of course, but if you pass up the opportunity to talk with the women who volunteer there, you're not getting the entire experience. The Blanchard House is more than a museum. It's a place where history is told, where friends meet, where you can experience a piece of Florida that exists only in the tales of women like Eunice and Sonja. Go to the Blanchard House; just make sure you have time to listen.
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