Black Pearls, which opened this month at exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art for a four-month run, features work by Washington, D.C.-based photographer Reginald Cunningham that highlights the historically Black community of Pearl City, founded in 1915 in east Boca Raton.
Featuring photographs and first-person accounts by current residents and the descendants of the original residents, the Museum enlisted Imani Cheers, associate professor of digital storytelling in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, and Candace Cunningham, assistant professor of history at Florida Atlantic University and the Boca Raton Historical Society, to tell the full history of Pearl City.
“We want to tell the story of Pearl City through the current residents whose parents and grandparents were the original Pearl City settlers,” says Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, which stands two blocks from the original neighborhood south of Glades Road between Dixie and Federal highways. “The Pearl City residents are our museum’s closest neighbors, and we want to celebrate our neighbors with this exhibition.”
Cunningham, who came to photography by way of journalism, has had his work appear in British Vogue, The Washington Post, Essence, HuffPost, and Ebony, among others. He says he was first inspired to grab a camera after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
“Being commissioned by the Boca Raton Museum of Art to photograph the residents and cultural emblems of Pearl City ─ one of the South’s most beloved and enduring Black districts ─ is an amazing experience,” he says.
In addition to shots of the area, including street signs (Pearl, Ruby and Sapphire), the community garden and the long-standing Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, at 200 N.E. 12th St., he captured portraits of Pastors Ronald Brown and Calvin Davis, Anne Blutcher, John Martin, the Anderson Family, Katie Mae, Gladys Bettis, Irene Rufus, Annette Ireland, Barbara Griffin, Eva Cunningham (Griffin), Willie Jenkins, Geraldine and George Spain, and Marie Hester and her mother, Dorothee Overstreet, among others.
Hester, who attended the opening night Sept. 2, still lives in Pearl City with Overstreet and her husband, Lawrence Hester, a retired driver for United Van Lines. Hester worked as an HR specialist at the Library of Congress in Washington for 24 years, then returned to Pearl City to be with family.
Her grandfather, Will Demery, along with his wife Belle, were the original purchasers of the property. They were part of a wave of African-Americans migrating from Georgia, upstate Florida, and South Carolina, who came to South Florida to pick beans, strawberries and pineapples.
As FAU’s Cunningham writes in the accompanying catalog: “On April 26, 1915, a land auction was held to create “a brand-new colored city” that would “be governed exclusively by colored people. African-Americans purchased thirty lots that day.”
“Those disparities (racial and social) pushed African-Americans out of Georgia and the Carolinas and pulled them into South Florida,” she says about that time in history. “It was by no means the land of opportunity for Blacks, but it did offer more options than they were finding elsewhere.”
Hester remembers her parents picking beans, her mom taking in housework and doing wash.
They put $5 down to pay for the land and Hester remembers, “it was a struggle for them to pay for this land.” The balance due was $45, which when you’re earning 17 cents per day, can be onerous.
It’s something that Hester recalls to this day.
“I want my children to pass it down,” she says in the exhibit. “Make sure you have somebody in your family to tell about your family history. Tell them how important it was, how hard your parents worked for this. This was not easy,” she says.
While not a part of the exhibit, former residents Barbara Beasley Williamson, 81, now living in Fort Lauderdale, and her sister, Agnes Stevens Howard, 84, of West Palm Beach, both came to the museum to see old friends and neighbors.
Both educators, Williamson retired from the Broward County School District, where she worked as a primary specialist for 60 years. Williamson says her family migrated to South Florida from Georgia in 1944. She came to the exhibit equipped with a tote bag full of memorabilia, including a book about Pearl City and a framed photograph of her parents taken when they married.
Their mother, Ossie Mae Stevens (“the best mother”), a beautician, also ran a nursery school and was a strong influence in their lives.
Williamson talked about the “togetherness” of the community and has fond memories of her grandfather sharing the okra he grew with neighbors. She remembers playing with springboards they made from a plank and stone and Coke-bottle dolls with rope hair that they would comb and braid.
She remembers having to leave the Roadman Elementary School (formerly the Boca Raton Negro School) at noon each day to go and pick beans at Butts Farm until sundown.
If times are tough now, she’s prepared, she says. She remembers eating all kinds of beans for dinner: Black-eyed peas and rice, lima beans and rice, pigeon beans and rice, and great Northern beans with — what else? — rice.
She says she has great respect for her parents and others who went through much travail in those years and gives credit to caring neighbors and teachers.
“Pearl City was good to me,” she says. “It kept us going.”
In more recent years efforts have been made to bring the history of Pearl City to light. In 2000, the city’s Historic Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate five blocks of Pearl City as a historic district.
“The people out of this area, the children, and the grandchildren out of this area have become professionals – athletes, doctors, lawyers, and teachers,” the Rev. Calvin Davis says in the exhibit. “They have become politicians and police officers.”
While times were tough, many residents have lingering happy memories of that time and place.
Annette Ireland, a descendant featured in the exhibit, says: “They (the original residents) were trying to survive. But with that came peace. You could sleep with your windows open at night.”
“When we were kids, my mom, she’d put a blanket out on the grass right in front of the apartment,” she says. “We all would lay down and take a nap. This is at night. I’ve never lived in any other place like that, where everyone knew everybody. And there was family.”
Reginald Cunningham: Black Pearls runs through Jan. 22, 2023, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets: $12 adults, $10, seniors; students (with ID), children and members: Free. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday. Call 561-392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.