& Train Cars
by the Lake Wales History Museum and Museum of Florida History
This exhibit will be a timeline of the important development of the citrus industry in Lake Wales, along with a citrus and crate label showcase. Memorabilia, industrial machines, professional items, and citrus labels from the Lake Wales History Museum, and collection of twenty-four citrus labels from the Museum of Florida History that represent the thousands used in Florida between the late 1800s and the 1960s will be on display.
September 7 – October 1, 2022
This exhibition examines Hamilton’s central role during the Revolutionary War and Founding period in creating the economic, constitutional, social, journalistic, political, and foreign policy templates for modern America. Using reproductions from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and the Library of the New-York Historical Society, and drawing on recent scholarship about Alexander Hamilton, this traveling exhibition helps visitors learn that Hamilton was a statesman and visionary whose life shaped the America we live in two hundred years after his death.
african american voices of lake wales
welcome and thanks
The Lake Wales History Museum presents “African American Voices of Lake Wales,” funded in part by the following supporters:
Mountain Lake Community Service
Duke Energy Foundation
Florida Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture
Visit Central Florida
This online exhibit is the product of the work of our guest historian, Emmanuel George, who we are most grateful for and appreciative of his work helping us break down barriers and conduct 16 oral histories in the spring of 2021.
Lake Wales was founded by the Lake Wales Land Company in 1914. Originally, the goal was to develop the turpentine industry but quickly it was decided the beautiful location would make an ideal setting for a town, the town of Lake Wales. Turpentine was difficult and arduous work and many African-Americans were exploited by horrible conditions and poor pay in the turpentine and lumber industry as described by Zora Neale Hurston in her famous work, Of Mule and Men. Later as the town developed, many African-Americans found work in the railroad and citrus industry.
The early 20th century was the height of the Jim Crow era and when developing the town, it was decided that strict segregation would be enforced. In 1921, the Lake Wales Land Company subdivided a new plat just north of town on the other side of the railroad tracks for the African-American community to develop. This eventually became known as the “Negro Quarters” also known as “the Quarters.” Many of the citrus packing houses would later be built in the surrounding areas providing a job for those in the area. Records at that time note African Americans were paid 10-15 cents less an hour for the same labor as white laborers.
Most resided northwest of downtown, by 1921, the Land Wales Land Company subdivided a new plat, which effectively organized a community for Lake Wales’s African-Americans this area became known as the “Quarters.” Built by necessity due to the burgeoning African American population and new industry coming into the area, many African Americans initially went to work in the Turpentine Industry, then for the Railroads, and finally in Citrus. Originally outside of the city limits, the Quarters was far from downtown and far from white neighborhoods. This forced the community to become self-reliant.
By 1924, most of the commerce in this community became based on Lincoln Avenue. At this time, almost 100 buildings lined the street including businesses, churches, restaurants, grocery stores, and homes. Many of the original homes built in this area were built by nearby citrus associations to provide housing for their employees. Many of its residents only left the area during the day to work: cooking or cleaning for white residents, working in the Mountain Lake community, the Plantation Inn, or at the packing houses.
 Roosevelt School, “National Registry of Historic Places,” accessed November 18, 2021, https://s3.amazonaws.com/NARAprodstorage/lz/electronic-records/rg-079/NPS_FL/01000306.pdf. 8
There are several churches within the Quarters; one of the oldest is the First Institutional Missionary Baptist Church, formerly the First Baptist Church, opening their doors in 1914. It was started by a group of devout parishioners including Sister Pearl Cambell, Sister Cora Mitchell, Sister Annie Palmer, Sister Annie Smith, Sister Ruby Bright, and Brother Dock Mitchell. The first pastor was Reverend J.W. Epps.
One of the most important duties the churches had in the community was caring for the dearly departed. Even in death, the town was still segregated, African American churches worked together to establish what would be the Willow Lawn Cemetery. Established in the early 1920’s, the land was located across Highway 27, on Washington Avenue near Florida’s Natural. In 1941, the local churches deeded the Willow Lawn Cemetery to the city who has maintained it ever since, this is also when internment records began, the ten-acre site still has burials to this day. There is also a large section of the cemetery, an older section, with no head-stone markers. The original markers likely have been made of wood and have decomposed over time.
life in the quarters
The Quarters in Lake Wales had a thriving music scene. The local churches often had choirs from across the south come perform, often gospel music. There was also a local theatre called the Della Robia (?) that was part of the popular Chitlin’ Circuit. During segregation when African American artists could not perform at white theaters, they would go to the African American areas of town to perform. Many of the most famous of the musicians of the 1920’s-50’s play on the Chitlin’ Circuit included James Brown, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, B.B. King, Ray Charles, and many others.
According to residents, a popular game to play in the area was “Bolita,” a type of numbers lottery that came to Florida through Tampa in the 1880’s, it quickly spread throughout the Hispanic, Italian, and African American working class throughout the state. Through reviewing old Lake Wales Highlander Newspapers, Bolita was popular though illegal and the newspapers frequently reported raids by the police on people playing this game. Bolita eventually became the basis for the Florida Lottery.
The first school for African-American children in Lake Wales began thanks to two men, Reverend William Smith and Reverend Wesley Faison. Together, they worked with the Lake Wales Land Company to donate land, along with the school board to establish the first school in November 1917. One teacher Mrs. Lillie Brown, was provided to teach all the students, school was held at the International Baptist Church. It would then be moved to a Methodist Church, then a Masonic Lodge, until the Lake Wales Land Company provided a plot on Washington Avenue. The new school opened in 1922 at the northeast corner of Washington Avenue and E Street. The school was named after those two local pastors, the William-Wesley Church. Although the school expanded in 1926, by the mid-1930’s, the school was outdated and in terrible condition. Polk County Schools Superintendent was noted for saying “present conditions of the old school building is deplorable,” while noting it’s overcrowded, one room held over 60 students. It was time to build a new school.
Now one of the most prominent landmarks in this section of town is Roosevelt Academy, originally Roosevelt School. Constructed in 1937 and named after then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the building was architecturally vernacular masonry with Italian Renaissance elements. Architect Wilbur B. Talley and Builder Howard B. Trauger constructed the school. For two years, it served grades 1-9 until 1939 when it became the African-American high school for the community, hosting grades 1-12.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed which prohibited segregation in all aspects of life. However, it was not until 1968 that Lake Wales High School and Roosevelt School ended segregation among the students.
end of an era
The end of segregation affected the business community and the Quarters. The end of segregation provided new opportunities for shopping and businesses for local residence. African Americans were no longer confined to one section of town, and everyone could travel more, shop in other stores, and perhaps most importantly, provide more opportunity to the young people in the community. This had the unintended consequence for locally owned African American businesses within the Quarters to close down.
More coming soon!