Recently discovered pieces of Florida’s black history now line the walls of the Matheson History Museum’s latest exhibit.
“Long Road to Freedom: The Florida Black Heritage Trail” began Tuesday and will run through March 18. The free exhibit is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E. University Ave.
The exhibit is the first of its kind and features items relative to Gainesville, such as the 1923 Rosewood massacre and the Newberry Six lynching. It also displays items relevant to the Florida Black Heritage Trail, which inspired the exhibit.
“It gives you the chance to see how Florida’s history is both reflective of national history and also the very unique aspects of African-American history within the state of Florida,” said museum curator and archivist Rebecca Fitzsimmons.
Rosewood was an economically successful black town in Levy County before it was burned to the ground in 1923.
Gary Moore, the reporter who originally covered the Rosewood story in 1982, will be at the exhibit at 6 p.m. on Thursday discussing his book, “Rosewood: The Full Story.”
“I’m hoping to use the talk to urge state institutions to take a more active role in preserving and validating the evidence on Rosewood,” Moore said.
A member of the Rosewood Heritage Foundation, Sherry DuPree, will join Moore on Thursday to talk about the last Rosewood survivor and the descendants of the Rosewood incident.
“The hope is that the more that is known about the realities of mob violence, the more that side of human affairs can be confronted intelligently,” Moore said.
The exhibit displays some of Fitzsimmons’ photography, including photos of the graves of the Newberry Six lynching victims.
The museum also features an Associated Press news article about the lynchings, but there was never any official investigation after 1916.
“It [the exhibit] kind of sheds light on the current movement – the Black Lives Matter movement – because at this time 100 years ago, black lives didn’t matter,” said Peggy Macdonald, the museum’s executive director.
Perhaps the most eye-catching and controversial piece of the exhibit are the silk Ku Klux Klan robes, which were donated in 2012 by an anonymous donor, Macdonald said.
A Confederate battle flag was donated around the same time and is situated next to the robe. There are photos of a KKK robe factory, a script that members followed to initiate other members and photos of the KKK waving the Confederate flag.
“What we learn from history is better appreciation for the present,” Macdonald said.
But Florida’s black history isn’t all negative.
Florida is the site of the first free black town in the United States: Fort Mose. Under Spanish Florida, any slave who converted to Catholicism and agreed to protect the Spanish crown would get their freedom.
“It’s wonderful to be able to say that in the 1700s there were free African-Americans, and it was right here in Florida,” Macdonald said.
Macdonald said learning African-American history will help people understand the present and where we are with race relations today.
“My hope is that people will be inspired when they look at this and look at more about this history,” Fitzsimmons said. “Because, really, there [are] some fascinating things that emerge.”