History museum

Naples Depot wagon could house Black History Museum

In what would be a first for Collier County, the baggage car at the Naples Depot Museum could become a permanent exhibit telling the county’s black history.

The Collier County NAACP, along with Friends of the Museum, Southwest Heritage and the Collier County Community Foundation are raising funds and developing plans to turn the wagon into a space dedicated to telling these stories.

Vincent Keeys, president of Collier’s NAACP, is a retired railroad worker who said Naples became what it is today because of the railroad.

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“There was a race between the rail lines to see which one could get this south the fastest,” Keeys said. “It was a big deal because it meant increased trade and many wealthy and elite people came here for sport and recreation.”

George Pullman, inventor of the sleeping car in 1864, hired African Americans at the end of the Civil War, helping them out of poverty, Keeys said.

“They were coming out of slavery and finding gainful employment,” he said. “Before rail, the primary means of employment for African Americans was in agriculture. Pullman was one of the wealthiest people at the time and employed a lot of black labor.

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These workers, known as Pullman porters, were there to greet customers crossing the country. Keeys said they were commonly referred to as “George”, which was demeaning, but the movement still created jobs.

“We try to make the baggage car a space to tell the story of the Pullman porters with other African American storytelling pieces, exhibits by African American artists such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes,” said Keeys. “There’s a lot to tell and so many historical pieces we could share.”

A restored baggage car at the Naples Depot Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Naples, Florida.

The Community Foundation of Collier County provided a $15,000 grant to have architectural plans drawn up to show what the potential exhibit might look like.

“What’s unique about Collier is that there is no multicultural center of any kind,” said Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and CEO of the Foundation. “It was the first time someone had come to us and said, ‘I think it’s time we had a place where black history and black art could be shown. “”

This is just the beginning for the county to begin collecting these multicultural pieces that have not been collected in the past, she said.

“At the Community Foundation, we look at all the elements that make up a healthy community, and the cultural issues that affect our community is something we need to elevate and understand its role in history as we move forward,” he said. she declared. “When we give these kinds of grants, in this case to help get started, that’s a perfect role for the foundation.

The Naples Depot baggage car served many purposes.

Amanda Townsend, director of Collier County Museums, said it was once a gift shop, warehouse and there were plans, which ultimately failed, to use it as a center for welcome for the chamber of commerce.

“In February 2020, we were working on black history exhibits throughout the system and discussion began with the NAACP about a permanent location to tell the story of the African American contribution to our community and the idea baggage car seemed to fit,” Townsend mentioned.

The 10th Street corridor, where the Naples Depot Museum is located, is traditionally an African-American neighborhood, she said.

Architectural rendering of the exterior of the Naples Depot Museum Baggage Car.  The Collier County NAACP is working with the Community Foundation and others to build a permanent African American exhibit.

Offering full support, Friends of the Museum President Bill Dwight said it was an ideal place to tell Southwest Florida’s African-American story.

“It’s a great place and very popular because it’s not just a typical facility space. It has its own story, look and feel when you’re inside,” Dwight said. “And of course the African-American presence in the 1920s on the railroad, including the lines that ran down from central Florida to Naples, was significant.”

Friends of the Museum and the NAACP are hosting a sold-out event Saturday at the Depot to kick off fundraising.

“This project has so much momentum in the community that we’re going to get through it no matter what,” Dwight said. “We’re obviously extremely excited that there’s been a lot of interest.”

Collier’s commissioners gave their full support to the efforts in January, and Keeys said he was honored and grateful that they supported the project.

A restored baggage car at the Naples Depot Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Naples, Florida.

The proposed permanent exhibition will house more than local stories; it will also house national black history exhibits.

“African American history is American history no matter how hard you try to erase it,” Keeys said. “We must never forget how much we have contributed to making this country a great country. Our people were in bondage. We gave free labor to make some people rich, and we’ll never let them forget that. It was a tragedy.

Karl Schneider is a reporter for the Naples Daily News. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk