DeLand has an amazing history, and Black pioneers, entrepreneurs and business owners have played an important role. The Painter’s Pond murals and display of our local Black community leaders on MainStreet during Black History Month celebrate this important part of our history and the invaluable contributions of the Black community in DeLand.
As wonderful as this recognition may be, ultimately it serves as an opportunity for us as a town to consider more deeply the importance of the African American experience in DeLand, in the past and today.
A study I recently conducted with my students to identify social, health and cultural resources and needs for the Black community in DeLand tells the story of a town that has struggled to distribute resources equitably. It is almost as if Black and White residents of DeLand live in two different worlds.
More than 75 percent of Black respondents in the survey stated that their community lacks a specific public space for people to gather. In comparison, only 35 percent of White respondents believed this to be so. This is likely because the survey indicated Downtown DeLand as a space utilized frequently by White respondents but not by Black respondents.
The intersection of Voorhis and Clara avenues, known as Wright’s Corner by members of the Spring Hill community, is the location of the Wright Building and an important place for the African American community in DeLand. Historically, it served as the heart of the Black business district during segregation.
During this time, Wright’s Corner provided DeLand’s Black community a place to meet, gather and socialize. As such, it was an important cultural institution for DeLand’s Black citizens. After decades of divestment, however, this important district fell into disrepair and disuse.
Despite the years of neglect, the Wright Building is currently under restoration, and the city has committed to revitalization efforts of the Voorhis area. If done with care, these projects could be a wonderful opportunity to purposefully re-create this space again into an economic and social fixture of the Black community.
This opportunity and the promise it affords us, however, will not solve the more general problem of a lack of sustained investment and resource allocation in DeLand’s Black communities.
Sustained investment is needed to maintain the basic functions of the communities and to avoid such disrepair in the first place. I ask our civic leaders to continue to build upon these efforts to ensure DeLand can learn from its past and embrace an inclusive small town moving forward.
In realizing this goal, we must learn from the past to ensure the residents of these areas themselves enjoy the benefits of these investments and are not otherwise pushed out. We should remember that there were Black communities in DeLand, such as Little Africa and Red City, that no longer exist, in part because of revitalization efforts and the expansion of Stetson University.
Sustained investment in Black communities in DeLand is needed. At the same time, we can avoid the mistakes of the past by focusing on changes that center on the preservation of Black history and cultural heritage.
To do so, the city should:
• reconsider the annexation of Spring Hill to assure residents of Spring Hill receive the basic resources needed to maintain an economically viable community;
• consider the establishment of a Black Historic District and allocate appropriate resources to preserve the Black cultural heritage of the town;
• ensure revitalization efforts do not result in the gentrification of Black communities;
• incentivize Black-owned business within the Downtown CRA. The current racial and ethnic demography of Downtown businesses does not reflect the diversity of our town;
• evaluate best practices that encourage more white residents to take part in events and festivals happening in Spring Hill and other Black communities. As a resident once told me, White people should proactively consider supporting Black and Hispanic businesses as part of the Buy Local movement.
As a member of the DeLand community who lives in the Downtown Historic District, I expect resources to be distributed equitably.
DeLand would be well-served by a commitment to embrace the town’s rich cultural and racial diversity. In fact, it is this diversity that contributes to the charm and livelihood of our small town.
DeLand’s prosperity and success are limited unless all its citizens are a part of it and sustained investments are made to ensure the Black community is included in this prosperity.
I look forward to us, as a vibrant community and award-winning town, capitalizing on the opportunity to finally bring our long-neglected neighbors into the fold.
— Johnson is an associate professor of public health at Stetson University. She earned a Ph.D. in urban and regional planning from Florida State University and a Master of Public Health in epidemiology from Georgia Southern University. Since her arrival in DeLand in 2014, her work with the Spring Hill community has provided data-driven evidence documenting the struggles of DeLand’s Black community.