On Feb. 1, the National Park Service listed the James W. Wright Building in DeLand on the National Register of Historic Places.
This historic benchmark coincided with the beginning of Black History Month 2021.
The project to list the Wright Building in the nation’s top federal list of historic places began after Greater Union Life Center of DeLand acquired the building in 2018.
Greater Union Life Center bought the Wright Building at a tax-certificate sale for several reasons, including a desire to preserve the building and return it to service as a vital part of Wright’s Corner — once a lively center of Black commerce.
Also, the church wanted to recognize the building in association with the life and achievements of James W. Wright, the community of Wright’s Corner, and the larger neighborhood.
Early on, Greater Union Life Center engaged Mark Shuttleworth of Florida Victorian Architectural Antiques to supervise the stabilization, preservation, restoration and recognition of the building.
Shuttleworth continues to lead this important work, providing outstanding guidance and contributing donated professional services and materials.
Shuttleworth enlisted the professional services of Sanford preservation architect Jerry Mills and Lake Helen general contractor Richard Basso of Volusia General Contractors (Formasters).
Shuttleworth, as well as several of my colleagues at Stetson University — Dr. Andy Eisen, Savannah-Jane Griffin and Kevin Winchell — approached me about two years ago for assistance in preparing a formal National Register nomination for the Wright Building, which I gladly accepted on a community-service volunteer basis.
Over two years, I conducted research, composed and revised drafts of the building’s architecture and history, completed required federal and state forms, organized photographs, prepared site and floor plans, and communicated with National Register staff in Tallahassee.
During this process, I had the pleasure of meeting with Mario Davis, executive director of Greater Union Life Center, and Nancy Tinker, senior field officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Charleston, South Carolina, office.
Along the way, Shuttleworth, Davis and Tinker shared with me perspectives about the building, its preservation, and future uses for it, as well as discussing the $100,000 grant made by the National Trust to the center for the building’s restoration.
Wright developed the building in 1920 after several decades of success in Florida agriculture. In 1913, he shipped 12,000 boxes of citrus at an estimated value of $15,000 to national wholesalers in Boston and New York City. Two years later he held 250 acres, including 60 acres in citrus.
Wright operated a citrus packinghouse, which was part of his farm on West Minnesota Avenue, where he processed and shipped his fruit, as well as citrus harvested by some of his neighbors, both Black and white citrus farmers.
Trip to Boston
James W. Wright, Dr. Booker T. Washington and Boston’s Convention Hall
In 1915, Dr. Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama invited Wright to speak at the annual convention of the National Negro Business League in Boston.
Organized in 1900 by Dr. Washington with other leading African American businessmen, educators and publishers, the league then served as the nation’s most significant organization for Black men and women engaged in business and commerce.
Dr. Washington’s agenda for the three-day convention placed Wright as the first speaker to open the sessions on successful businesses operated by Black people in America.
The league met in Convention Hall, a fashionable brick building several blocks south of the resplendent Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
Wright’s notes and memories do not survive of his experiences traveling from the citrus groves of West Volusia to the “Cradle of Liberty” in New England, where he engaged with some of the most significant Black men and women then in positions of leadership and power in America.
Those experiences must have left a permanent, uplifting impression on Wright, encouraging him to invest in new areas of business and commerce back home.
Wright regaled his audience with stories about buying property, planting groves, experimenting with fertilizers, and enduring various setbacks as he cultivated, harvested and shipped citrus.
When Dr. Washington asked about the quality of his fruit compared to that of white growers, Wright injected dry wit into the session, musing, “The public or consumers don’t know the difference. We use the same fertilizer, the same method of cultivation and care, we get the benefit of the same air, moisture and sunshine and rain that the good Lord sends, and they don’t know black oranges from white oranges.”
Wright also provided a cautionary note, warning, “I may add that citrus-fruit growing in Florida is by no means an easy proposition; it requires a whole lot of attention and care to get satisfactory results.”
Wright also revealed that when he arrived in Volusia County, he had $1.50 in his pocket and now was worth “somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000.”
The influence of the Negro Business League
Wright’s “Life Membership” in the National Negro Business League brought him into a network of some of the nation’s top Black bankers, businessmen, doctors, educators, farmers and merchants, including Florida’s leading insurance executive and first Black millionaire Abraham Lincoln Lewis and contractor and developer Joseph Haygood Blodgett, both of Jacksonville; and R.C. Calhoun, founder of the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School in Eatonville, as well as Dr. Washington and R.R. Moton.
Before the 1915 convention, Moton had visited DeLand and presented to audiences at Bethel AME Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Wilhelmina Johnson’s Providence Industrial School, and had also met with Wright at his home and farm.
At the 1915 convention, successful Black men and women made presentations on banks and credit unions, beauty parlors, construction, funeral homes, life insurance, merchandising, photography, real estate investments, and restaurants, among other topics.
Wright’s experiences in Boston propelled him onto a national stage and into the networks of the nation’s leading African Americans, experiences that inspired Wright to invest some of his wealth in a traditional business venture back home.
Wright’s amazing success on Wright’s Corner
Wright’s investment in the two-story commercial building at Voorhis and Clara avenues, valued at $15,000 in 1920, included hiring the professional services of a well-established DeLand architect (Francis Miller) and builder (Rufus Knight), white men who designed and constructed his building.
Wright also hired the professional services of white attorneys to draft and file the articles of incorporation for the DeLand Mercantile Co., which Wright associated with his commercial businesses installed and operated in the building in the 1920s.
Later, he hired white attorneys to file suit against white investors to whom he had extended mortgages during the Great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, seeking payments they failed to make after the collapse of the land boom.
Wright developed the building with products from the Bond Sandstone Brick Co. of Lake Helen, bricks that have withstood the test of time, if diminished a little by weather and neglect.
The 1920 census reveals that a majority of laborers at the Lake Helen brick plant were African Americans and that most of DeLand’s brick masons were Black. Consequently, the material culture of the Wright Building reflects the prowess of West Volusia’s black craftsmen.
Between 1920 and his death in 1956, Wright owned and managed four businesses in the building and leased commercial spaces to at least 17 merchants, including a dry goods store, grocery, meat market, restaurant, shoeshine business, and tavern, and he rented upstairs apartments to at least three families.
In 1931, Dr. Samuel W. Poole established a dental office on the second floor, which he maintained long after Wright’s death, serving both Black and white patients.
Wright’s development of the building helped to transform what became known as Wright’s Corner into a thriving, vibrant neighborhood, which included the development of the Booker T. Washington Theater in 1921.
Wright’s investment in the theater business and the publication of notices in local newspapers encouraged DeLand’s citizens to invest their resources in the theater and the neighborhood. Several newspaper reports of the 1920s refer to the Wright Building as located in the larger African American neighborhood known as Yemassee.
Wright’s investments in architecture, commerce and community in the 1920s reflected larger growth and development trends of the Great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s. His investment also defied the larger trends of the first Great Migration (1916-40), when more than 1 million African Americans fled the American South for the Northeast and Midwest for better employment and to escape Jim Crow laws, blatant racism and lynchings.
Instead, Wright’s business and entrepreneurial skills and instincts helped him successfully navigate within and between the Black and white communities of DeLand and West Volusia.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Wright consistently maintained a two-thirds occupancy rate in his building, which often included at least one white merchant. These were remarkable achievements in the era of the Great Depression and Jim Crow racism.
Near the close of the National Register project, Mark Shuttleworth suggested another opportunity: to explore the possibilities of creating a historic district in the neighborhood surrounding the James W. Wright Building for listing on the National Register — another long-term and equally significant community-engagement project, appropriate to launch in Black History Month.
— Johnston, of DeLand, the assistant director of Grants and Sponsored Research at Stetson University, has worked on more than 140 National Register nominations.