Will a new FL Black history museum be factual and truthful, or could politics derail the project?

Amid tensions over a stream of incidents — from controversial academics over slavery, NAACP travel advisories and the loss of a Black congressional district to the hate-crime killings by Black people in Jacksonville — a new task force is trying to create a statewide Florida Museum of Black History.

But it’s not certain yet if the project will accurately and faithfully advance the cause and ultimately build the museum or derail it over a political agenda.

“I am committed to make sure that we tell the truth about Florida, and I don’t think that we can celebrate the progress that we’ve made as a state or as a country, without acknowledging the pain that came along with that. So I’m committed to doing that,” said Orlando-area Democratic state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, who has been appointed to the nine-member Florida Museum of Black History Task Force.

“I am hopeful that this study and the recommendations of the task force won’t end up on a shelf somewhere,” she added.

Four members of the task force serve in the Florida Legislature — two Democrats and two Republicans.

The other five members are: Two executive directors of museums, two business executives and an interim assistant vice chancellor of the Board of Governors.

Terri Lipsey Scott is the executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, one of 19 Black history museums sprinkled throughout Florida.

“The mission of the Woodson African-American Museum is to preserve, present, interpret, celebrate and educate around African-American history and its sculpture. And not to do so would in fact have us not living up to our mission,” she said.

The Florida Black History Museum should follow that same edict, she said. “We’re looking forward to presenting it in a factual, truthful, respectful manner.”

Rep. Antone didn’t get appointed

Notably, the lawmaker who conceived of the idea of the museum in the first place — Orlando-based Democratic Rep. Bruce Antone — isn’t part of the task force. He wrote the bill and received unanimous support from the Legislature earlier this year to create the task force. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Senate Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner chose the appointments.

“I was extremely, extremely disappointed that I was left off the task force,” the 62-year-old lawmaker told the Phoenix last week. “It was my idea. It was my bill. But I thought I should have been on there. So I was just really disappointed.”

But while Antone won’t be part of the group assigned to work on the planning, construction, operation and administration of what is expected to become the most comprehensive collection celebrating Black history in Florida, he still hopes to have some influence on how it will be created.

To that end, he’s produced a 59-page blueprint detailing how the task force should go about its business. He envisions ten separate exhibit halls within the main building that would focus on Blacks in the military; Blacks in aviation; Blacks and women in space; Black scientists and inventors; Black art and Black Florida artists; and an exhibit on the history of slavery in the state.

“It’s not intended to be a slavery museum,” Antone said. “This is not a civil rights museum. This is strictly a museum that would remember the past, celebrate the future and the present, but it would be about the contributions that Black folks and Caribbean immigrants have made to Florida and the history of Florida.”

That said, months of concerns about Black issues in Florida could be a problem for the task force.

Tensions have been rising

On Saturday, a young white man armed with an AR-15-style rifle and a handgun killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville. The shooter killed himself. An FBI official that day said the agency has opened a civil rights investigation and will pursue the incident as a hate crime.

But the tensions have been rising earlier.

Organizations such as the NAACP have criticized DeSantis and other state Republicans on a number of policy fronts. Those include  blocking educators from teaching certain Black history subjects in classrooms to denying funding for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, revising congressional districts that reduced Black representation in Congress and approving Florida academic standards in K-12 schools that relate to how Black people benefitted from slavery because it taught them skills.

That perceived hostility has led to travel advisories and Black-based organizations cancelling upcoming conventions in the state.

Black historians are watching closely how this task force will approach its responsibility in creating a history museum that tells the state’s past accurately and faithfully.

“If the task force is necessary to get this program or project off the ground, so be it. That’s a good thing,” says Albert S. Broussard, a professor of African-American studies at Texas A&M University.

“If it means the task force can help attract state funding and perhaps some foundational funding, that’s a great thing, too. But in terms of the content of this museum or any other museum, it really should be determined by specialists in the field, people who have the expertise and not by politicians who do not have expertise. They have a political agenda, and that should not dictate what should go into any academic museum.”

As State Sen. Thompson said: “I’m hoping that this will really result in the construction of a state museum focused on African-American history similar to the one in Washington D.C. [and] the one in Cincinnati, Ohio that focuses in on the underground railroad experience. The new human and civil rights center in Atlanta. So many other states and so many other localities have invested in this kind of tourism, and I think that it’s time that Florida did the same.”

What would the programming be about?

The law lays out specific issues and individuals that the museum needs to include in its programming: The history of slavery in the state; the history of segregation in the state; the history of historical Black colleges and universities in the state; notable African Americans in the state, specifically listing Mary McLeod Bethune and the founding of Bethune Cookman University; also the role of African-American participation in defending and preserving Florida and the U.S., including the contributions of residents of Fort Mose, the Tuskegee Airmen, and all African-American veterans; and “the inherent worth and dignity of human life, with a focus on the prevention of genocide.”

But underlying all of this is whether the group will keep politics out of their decision-making progress. Is that possible?

“I do believe so and would be very disappointed if that should derail our mission,” said Brian Butler, the president and CEO of JCB Construction in Orlando.

“I just hope and pray that this does not become another political football,” said State Rep. Antone. “We just need to come up with a design for a museum. We need to capture and preserve the history of Black folks in the state of Florida and the history of Caribbean immigrants coming to Florida. We just need to present history as it happened, as it occurred accurately. None of this whitewash stuff. None of this historical context missing.”

Professor Broussard says that it’s quite possible and maybe likely that there will be some divisions among programmers about what to include in such a major museum, citing previous controversies that have surfaced at the Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, both located in Washington D.C.

“In any museum, whether it’s a state museum or a regional museum, you’re going to have disagreements about what went in and what was left out,” he says. “Because a museum can’t house every single aspect of any group’s history.”

There will undoubtedly be other challenges that the task force will contend with, such as: Where will the museum actually be built?

Gayle Phillips, the executive director of the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center in St. Augustine, says it should be housed in northeast Florida.

“Obviously I’m biased, but I hope it will be somewhere in St. Augustine or somewhere in northeast Florida where we have an abundance of history, but I will work to the best of my ability to have the maximum input that I can into what we put in there,” she said.  “We would love for it to be in northeast Florida, not in Orlando. The history is here in St. Augustine and Duval and Nassau.”

But Thompson and Antone say they would like the structure to be built in Eatonville, the Orange County town located six miles north of Orlando that became the first incorporated all-Black city in the country.

“Right now there are negotiations about land that was given to the town for educational purposes,” said Thompson. “So that’s something that I’m going to be highlighting for my other task force members and really strongly suggesting that for consideration.”

The task force will work within the Division of Historical Resources of the Florida Department of State. Members of the task force were told last week that they will have their first meeting scheduled soon.

Here are the nine individuals who have been named to the task force.

Ron DeSantis appointees:

Brian Butler – President and CEO of JCB Construction, Inc. Chair of the Central Florida Foundation.

Berny Jacques- Republican state House member from Pinellas County.

Altony Lee – Interim Assistant Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs for the Board of Governors of the State University System.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo appointees:

Geraldine Thompson – Democratic state Senator from Orlando area.

Bobby Powell – Democratic state Senator from Palm Beach County.

Terri Lipsey Scott – Executive Director for the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg

House Speaker Paul Renner appointees:

Kiyan Michael – Republican state House member from Duval County.

Gayle Phillips – Executive Director of the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center in St. Augustine

Howard M Holley – Founder of TouchPoint Innovative Solutions and former senior vice president at the Xerox Corporation.

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