The long, hard work of rehabilitating the J.W. Wright Building, a prominent historical landmark for the Black community in DeLand, involves more than just fixing the roof.
To establish funding, and to promote the building’s historical significance and future use, those involved in the endeavor sought the approval of the DeLand Historic Preservation Board to seek nomination of the Wright Building to the National Register of Historic Places.
“Without our history, we lose our identity,” Dr. Joyce Cusack, a prominent local figure and former state legislator, told the board at its Sept. 3 meeting.
“The Wright Building is very important to the history of the Black community,” Cusack said. “And it’s important for generations to come.”
The move is another step forward in the yearslong effort to rejuvenate the building, and restore both its former physical glory and its historic function as an economic hub.
The building, a 1920 two-story brick structure at the corner of Voorhis and Clara avenues, was once a bustling center of commerce and community activity, at the center of a Black downtown in segregation-era DeLand.
An eminent Black citrus grower named James W. Wright built the property. Wright, a successful businessman, developed the commercial building and helped establish the DeLand Mercantile Company, one of the very few Black-created 1920s corporations in Volusia County.
Over the course of 30 years — from 1926 to 1956, until Wright’s death, which includes the period of the Great Depression — storefronts were leased to at least 17 merchants. There was a cafe, a grocery mart, and more. Upstairs, apartments were rented to multiple families, as well as professional offices, including one to DeLand’s prominent black dentist Dr. Samuel Poole.
According to the historical record, Wright also leased to both White and Black merchants, an unusual arrangement in the Jim Crow-era American South.
The building began to fall into disrepair in the 1980s, and had sat vacant for more than a decade when the property was purchased by Greater Union First Baptist Church in a tax-deed sale in 2016. For the past two years, the building has slowly gone through much-needed stabilization.
“The plan is to restore what it once was,” Shuttleworth told the Historic Preservation Board, holding up a piece of the 100-year-old structure’s original tin ceiling. “To return it to its original purpose as a place of commerce and neighborly activity.”
The upstairs will be a job incubator — of which there are currently none in West Volusia, Shuttleworth said — and the downstairs a Black history museum and possibly, a center for health and nutrition outreach.
Assistant Director of Grants and Sponsored Research at Stetson University Sidney Johnston said he’s spent nearly 280 hours of volunteer time establishing the historical connections between J.W. Wright, the Wright Building, and other prominent historical figures — one of the requirements for listing the building on the National Register.
“The Wright Building, and J.W. Wright, typifies the American businessman of the time, in a way that we lose when we lose these buildings,” Johnston told The Beacon.
“Right now, I’m trying to find that federal connection for national significance,” he told the Historic Preservation Board.
The building meets the criteria for state listing, but the big get, the one that is most likely to assist in grant procurement, would be federal recognition as a National Historic Landmark, of which there are only 42 in Florida.
That means establishing a paper trail that places a nationally recognized historical figure in the building at the correct time. It’s a monumental research task.
“The process takes about three to five years,” Johnston said. “I expect it to take at least that long.”
The building itself is moving through the stabilization process with the assistance of Rick Basso, a Lake Helen city commissioner and building contractor.
“It’ll be a year-and-half to two years before occupancy,” Shuttleworth estimated.
The five members of the board in attendance voted unanimously to support the nomination.
“This building was a monumental achievement in its time,” one board member said. “I’m so proud it is being restored, proud it was an anchor of the community, and am proud to be able to vote on this.”
The next stops in the nomination process are the Florida National Register Review Board in Tallahassee in November, and then on to the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C., in December of this year.