GIFFORD – Jonnie Mae Perry, the executive director of the Gifford Historical Museum and Cultural Center, seems to know everything about the history of Gifford and the people who have lived there. The knowledge she and the museum share is critically important to understanding American history, not just Black history.
“Black history is American history,” Ms. Perry told Hometown News. “We should embrace it and teach it 365 days a year. That’s one of the things that the museum and cultural center is doing. The more we learn about each other, the more we will respect each other, and the more we will see that we are all intertwined as a people.”
That history lesson starts with the building itself. The museum is based in the Historic Macedonia Church.
“The little church was relocated to 45th Street in Gifford from Sebastian in 1994,” Ms. Perry said. “It was built in 1908 by Black laborers of the Florida East Coast Railroad that didn’t have anywhere to worship. So they would travel from all over to come to this little church in Sebastian.”
“The Indian River County Historical Society got in touch with the Progressive Civic League of Gifford and asked them if they would take ownership of the church. So the church was moved, but it was falling apart. The entire community came together to support the renovations of that building after it was relocated to Gifford.”
“In 2015, one of the Progressive Civic League members, Mr. Godfrey Gibson, told me that they always wanted the little church to be a museum and Black history library. He said ‘do you think you want to run with that?’ I had no clue, but I took the challenge and said ‘sure’. So I enlisted others in the community, got a steering committee going, and we tried to figure it out, and get volunteers to help restore the church. It took over two years. In 2018, we opened the Gifford Historical Museum and Cultural Center.”
Ms. Perry has a passion for telling the stories about Gifford that many people don’t know.
“There was a Black school in Gifford, built in 1901, on land donated by Mr. William Jeffries. There was no school for Black children, and they were not allowed to go to white schools. So he donated the land for a park and a school. From 1901-1937, Black children went to that school from first to sixth grade. If you wanted to go to higher grades, you had to go to Fort Pierce.”
“Mr. John Broxton of Wabasso wanted his kids to be educated beyond sixth grade, so he would drive kids to the school in Fort Pierce. His kids only went to school for three or four months, because once the agriculture season started, they had to work to help feed their family.”
“In 1937, the school became a high school, so it was grades 1-12 then. The first graduating class in 1938 was three people.”
One section of the museum is dedicated to the teachers at Gifford High School, which closed at the end of the 1969 school year due to integration. “We also opened a museum inside of Gifford Middle School two years ago in honor of Gifford High School, called the Gifford High School Legacy Room.”
“Another thing people don’t know: growing up in the 1960s, Gifford was thriving, due to Black people. A lot of Black people had their own businesses. My father had a service station called Brown’s Standard Oil. There were multiple gas stations, and we had a post office in Gifford.”
“Gifford was nothing like it is now. There were dry cleaners, stores, a law firm, a florist, and a pharmacy. There was a bus line, taxi service, grocery stores, and a drive-in theater right next to the old Gifford school location. It was called the Arthur Henderson Drive-in Theater. It had been called the Harlem Drive-in Theater before Mr. Arthur Henderson acquired it. Mr. Henderson lived on the grounds and ran that theater.”
“There was another theater on Old Dixie. And there was Club Balli, with hotel apartments on top where people would stay when they came into town. The Jackson family that owned Club Balli had another one called the Green Leaf Bar. We had entertainers come to Gifford like Clarence Carter, and blues singers.”
Ironically, Ms. Perry says that an unintended consequence of integration may have been the loss of much of that local economy. People in Gifford started patronizing businesses outside of Gifford, and the money that had been spent locally to build Gifford began to leave the community.
“There are many opinions about that, and I can only speculate,” Ms. Perry said. “When the Gifford businesses started, the community made lemonade out of lemons. It was a drive for people to make their own way. It appears that, after integration and we were allowed to go more into Vero, and Vero became more inclusive, those Gifford businesses began to just fall away.”
The museum today has several focuses. One is to teach young people about that history of entrepreneurship not only in Gifford, but in the greater Black community.
“We have information on inventors, and I’m learning so much. So many things that impact our lives on a daily basis were invented by Black people. The electric elevator with doors that open and close was invented by a Black man. Other examples are the traffic light, and the refrigerator box car truck that we use today to haul refrigerated items all over the country. How important is that now with this vaccine?”
“The iron and ironing board, the dryer, the dust pan, the microphone, all these things we use on a daily basis were invented by Black people. Maybe if people were more educated about these things we would be more inclusive with each other. We want Black kids to feel proud, especially with so much subtle systemic racism. We need to build self esteem.”
The museum has an area that honors the first African Americans in the county to achieve in their respective fields. It has a children’s library that was donated by the Laura Riding Jackson Foundation. It has an African American history library, a veterans’ corner, and a sports corner.
“One of the donations in our sports corner is the souvenir booklet from when Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers. A man who was at the game shared it with me, and the only full page ad was from Gifford residents, a simple ad listing names I remembered from when I was a little girl, friends of my father. We are very proud to have that document in the museum.”
Ms. Perry added that former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley visited just before COVID hit and contributed some things regarding Jackie Robinson.
“Running a museum, I’ve learned a lot,” Ms. Perry said. “I fell in love with Gifford history. If you don’t tell your stories, they’ll be forgotten. So many young people in the Gifford area just don’t know what Gifford used to be like.”
The Gifford Community Cultural & Resource Center, a non-profit 501(c)(3) volunteer-based organization that oversees the operation of the museum, has a dream of building a larger cultural center and museum. Ms. Perry says they have many more donated artifacts that they don’t have room to safely share with the community.
The Gifford Historical Museum and Cultural Center is located at 2880 45th St., Gifford. The museum is open the first Saturday of the month, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and other days by appointment.