Buildings, parks and streets all over Plant City bear the name of legends from the black community. Few, however, know their stories.
An Instagram account that focuses on highlighting the people, the community and events that make Plant City unique is shining a spotlight on an area of the city’s history that is often overlooked.
Vicky Saunders, the creator of the Instagramers of Plant City Instagram account (@igersplantcity), has spent the last month and a half delving deep into the history of communities like Bealsville and the once-flourishing Laura Street Business District in order to create educational posts in honor of Black History Month. The first post went up Feb. 1 and each corresponding feature has increasingly gained traction as the community shares stories of its own and memories of the town residents call home.
“I wanted to make sure that I use this account to share Plant City’s black history because we have so much history there and I don’t think it is appreciated as much as it should, be” Saunders said. “A lot of people might not realize the names of these buildings and parks are named after really important and groundbreaking people in this community. I want to shed light on the stories behind so many foundational aspects of this community and I hope that the posts kind of open that door for someone to take an interest and learn something new. Maybe it will inspire others to do more research on their own.”
The posts have shared stories like the history of Bealsville, written by Jon Wilson of Visit Florida. Bealsville is one of Florida’s oldest continuous African-American communities. Wilson explained that after the end of the Civil War, 12 former slaves on a frontier planation “stayed on to chart their futures.” He shares facts about the original 12 families and the hurdles they had to overcome to build their community. Alfred Beal was able to hold onto his land despite hard times due to his exceptional farming skills. Others’ property foreclosed and Beal bought the land to then sell back to the residents. He also donated land for a school, church and cemetery. The area was named in Beal’s honor in 1923.
To this day, the Bealsville community makes it a point to keep the property in the hands of local residents.
Saunders started her research at the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center and met with Executive Director Gil Gott. Saunders said Gott is a walking spring of knowledge. Instead of just stating facts, he can weave the various stories together to present a thorough picture of the community’s history. However, when it came to being able to put a literal image to his depth of knowledge, there was one slight issue: while the Photo Archives has a plethora of photos of the community throughout its history, there is a major lack of images of the city’s black history.
“We don’t have enough photos or even enough stories,” Gott said. “We have a lot of information and research, but not photos of the businesses and the activity that has been going on for generations in some of these communities around town. The newspapers didn’t cover hardly any of that activity back in the time of segregation and they had a very busy and very large and active community there. But the newspapers didn’t come, so we don’t have the photos. Anyone who can bring a photo in from Lincoln Park or Madison Park area, that would be great. We need to preserve our communities’ history, not just part of the community’s history.”
Gott said anyone who has photos that tell the story of the community — whether they’re from their grandparents, aunts’ or uncles’ photo albums — the Photo Archives would love to be able to document and archive them. The center is open from 10:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Those interested can either come in or call 813-754-1578.
Anise J. Brown, a former intern at the Photo Archives and History Center, published a series called “Growing Up Black in Plant City, Florida During the Time of Segregation and Inequality.” Some of her work and the stories that she unearthed have been highlighted via the IGers Plant City account. Brown shared stories of those who grew up in segregated schools using books that white students no longer used. In her work, members of the community who grew up in one of the four schools where black students were allowed to learn reflected on their favorite teachers and the lessons they learned not only about their school subjects, but also about how to live in such a divided world.
Saunders said groups like the Improvement League of Plant City, Bealsville, Inc. and iImpact Plant City are hidden gems in the community that everyone should take the time to learn from and support. Bealsville, Inc. continues to work toward enhancing the community and preserving the history of the historic area.
“When you know the history of this community, it makes you love it more,” Saunders said. “Alfred Beal’s house, if we had enough awareness for how important that is to the community, maybe we could preserve it and make it the honored destination it deserves to be. Awareness leads to interest, which leads to people wanting to work hard to preserve the past.”
The Improvement League channels a similar mission and has played a key role in preserving the history of Laura Street. Its members are filled to the brim with knowledge of the history of the community and its families. They can walk you down the street and point at various lots as they paint a picture of the bustling district it used to be.
The group has a variety of events that pay homage to the rich history of the community. The Bing Rooming House Museum also acts as a great start for one to dive into the stories, family trees and experiences of those who have long called the community home.
The iImpact Plant City group’s mission statement is to “create community forums and workshops to help educate, enlighten and ‘empower to engage’ effectively on issues that impact Plant City.”
The IGers Plant City account has many more posts lined up for the rest of the month and Saunders said the best thing to come out of it so far has been the conversations it has sparked among local residents. People are sharing their stories, adding facts and history from their own families and have said they are now looking into things they didn’t know before.
“These stories kind of give you a blast to the past and they help you realize what it was really like to be a part of this community back then,” Saunders said. “I hope this is informing people and creating a deeper appreciation for the history behind all of these places and things in our community. This isn’t even scratching the surface of what is here, but I hope it’s a good starting point and will help inspire people to do more research and to look at their own family history and see if there’s photos or stories they should share to preserve them forever.”