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University Archives & Special Collections Exhibits

The Black Experience in Lee County

January 24 - April 28, 2022


From the first permanent African American settler in Fort Myers to the creation of the Lee County Black History Society, The Black Experience in Lee County has included both oppression and triumph. The rich history begins with the arrival of Nelson Tillis on Christmas Day in 1867. The arrival of Tillis and the first railroad to cross the Caloosahatchee in 1904 led to an increase in the African American population, prompting the development of segregated neighborhoods known as Safety Hill and Pinetucky. With the people as the unshakeable foundation, the institutional pillars that are known throughout the community today began to take shape. The community first sees the building of churches in the late 1800s, as well as the creation of Williams Academy in 1912. The erection of the Jones Walker Hospital would follow, along with the building of Dunbar High School in 1926. In 1946, Safety Hill would become known as Dunbar Heights to better reflect the hopes and dreams of African Americans. 

The members of the Black community worshiped, learned, assembled, organized, and shared their lives in these sacred spaces. The pride of the community, these spaces nurtured strong future business and civic leaders and fostered the growth of political, educational, spiritual, and social voices celebrated in the exhibition. Of course, there cannot be triumphs without barriers to overcome. The long history of Lee County proves time and again that the Dunbar community was resilient against segregation, prejudice, Jim Crow laws, and racial violence. The ‘human’ pillars paved the way as they ran for civic office, fought for integration and voting rights, and documented news and current events through the lens of the Black experience. 

In the face of challenges, the Black community in Fort Myers remained resolute, becoming an example of resilience for all citizens who call Southwest Florida home. The institutional pillars featured in the exhibition continue to amplify community voices and experiences through stories of success. In partnership with the Lee County Black History Society, multi-generational resident and local historian, Jarrett Eady, and many residents who brought the history to life, the Florida Gulf Coast University Archives and Special Collections are humbled to present the 2022 Spring exhibition: The Black Experience in Lee County.

Poster for The Black Experience in Lee County