Years ago, when people of color weren’t welcome in most shops on Downtown DeLand’s main street, the Black community had a business district of its own.
There was a barber, a doctor, a handful of small businesses in the Wright Building, and the Washington Theater, where you could see a movie without regard to the color of your skin. All of this activity was in the 200 block of West Voorhis Avenue near Downtown DeLand.
The short strip was “the hub for the hill,” according to Mary Allen, referring to the Spring Hill community in southwest DeLand.
Allen, executive director of the African American Museum of the Arts at 325 S. Clara Ave., was speaking in September, at the unveiling of a mural on this history-rich stretch of West Voorhis Avenue.
The mural memorializes eight people (one of them is still alive), recording their achievements and contributions to DeLand’s Black community.
At the unveiling, members of the community celebrated the mural’s ability to tell the area’s story.
“Unless we preserve that history, it will be lost,” Allen told the small crowd gathered.
The mural was designed by DeLand artist Courtney Canova and painted on a small former convenience store by him and four other artists: Bianca and Anthony Sukhu, Jeremy Canova and Jaryd Johnson.
Stetson University public-health professor Dr. Asal Johnson rallied students and community members to choose the subjects and to get sponsors to fund it.
The colorful painting shines like a beacon on the otherwise dreary block, hinting at what DeLand’s commitment to the neighborhood could one day bring about.
Today, the block can’t be described as vibrant. The patch of earth at the bottom of the mural is scrappy and devoid of landscaping; the wide road dominates the ill-kept sidewalks, and the road is frequented by loud, speeding cars; some lots are vacant, some buildings empty.
Family members of those depicted in the mural came to the unveiling from as far away as Los Angeles.
Lana Smith is the niece of Walter “Zundy” Dixon, a master barber whose shop was not far from where the mural is today. She talked about the ambiance of his barbershop.
“You weren’t just getting your hair cut. You were going to get a life lesson and be taught about God,” she said.
Retired Volusia County administrator Reggie Williams, who is also a pastor, spoke at the mural unveiling. He recalled Dr. Lancaster Starke’s office across the street from the mural, where the doctor would see a patient for free, if necessary, or for whatever the family could pay.
“Saving the history of this community is so important,” Williams said.
Those gathered for the unveiling looked into the past, but they also looked to the future. DeLand is planning a streetscape for the block, the African American Museum around the corner has just gotten a grant to pay for expansion, and Greater Union First Baptist Church’s secular nonprofit, Greater Union Life Center, is knee-deep in restoring the Wright Building, at 258 W. Voorhis Ave., to glory.
County Council Member Barb Girtman also spoke at the unveiling. She described the block of Voorhis Avenue as “an area that deserves so much more than what it has received.”
The stretch of Voorhis has been part of DeLand’s Community Redevelopment Agency district since the agency was created in the mid-1980s, but CRA tax dollars have been spent on Woodland Boulevard, not here. That may be changing now, the mural whispers.
“It’s about the past,” Girtman told the people, “but it’s also about the future.”