wright building
The Wright Building is shown at 258 W. Voorhis Ave., with the African American Museum of the Arts behind it, fronting on South Clara Avenue, and the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater across the street.

African American Museum to expand thanks to grant


Thanks to a grant of nearly $500,000, DeLand’s African American Museum of the Arts is planning a big expansion to offer more art and programs to the community.

“The plans are going great,” museum Director Mary Allen told The Beacon. “We can bring in more activities. It’ll increase our programming within the community.”

The expansion funded by the Florida Department of State is planned immediately south of the existing museum at 325 S. Clara Ave. The increased space will allow the museum to take art out of storage and expand its one gallery to three.

Expansion will also mean the museum can house more temporary exhibitions and display its library of historical books and periodicals.

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The $474,040 came courtesy of the Department of State’s African-American Cultural and Historical Grants. Access to a grant program like this was a great opportunity, Allen said, because small operations like the African American Museum often don’t have the resources to take advantage of grants.

“Small museums don’t have the money,” she said.

This grant award comes on the heels of the museum receiving another grant for $3,500 from Florida Humanities earlier this year.

The museum board anticipates construction of the additional building will use up all of the grant funds and more. To help fund the expansion, the museum has also applied for a Volusia ECHO grant and is seeking donations. Anyone interested in helping can visit the museum’s website at www.africanmuseumdeland.org or stop by the museum. The African American Museum of the Arts is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays.

Wright Building rehab is at the heart of Voorhis restoration


The Wright Building is at the heart of efforts to revitalize the West Voorhis Avenue neighborhood.

A circa-1920 red-brick building at the southeast corner of Voorhis and Clara avenues, the building was built by a noted Black DeLand businessman, and became a centerpiece of Black businesses through the years.

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Greater Union First Baptist Church’s Life Center acquired the building in a tax sale in 2016. Since 2018, the Wright Building has been on a steady, and slow, pace of painstaking rehabilitation.

So far, about $370,000 has been put into stabilization and restoration via donations, along with grants for historic preservation and community redevelopment.

Plans aren’t finalized, but Greater Union Life Center envisions using the building as a Black history museum and business incubator, among other possible uses.

Members of a newly formed planning committee to create a Black history bike trail in DeLand meet Nov. 1 to begin laying the groundwork. The bike trail will, once mapped out, highlight important Black history sites in and around DeLand, primarily in the greater Spring Hill area.

But according to Mark Shuttleworth, who spearheads the restoration efforts, the latest grant — a pot of $125,000 from the Florida Department of State, via the African American Cultural and Historical Grant Program — has been held up for unknown reasons.

“We were supposed to get the money in July, and here it is December,”
Shuttleworth said. “I am disappointed we have not received the money
and have had to halt the restoration. Until we receive that money, there is no other money to proceed.”

The last grant — $100,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation — has already been used to restructure portions of the attic, and replace doors and windows.

The Wright Building will have an open house noon-5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, as part of the West Volusia Historical Society’s tour of historic homes.

Wright Building throughout the years


James W. Wright, a successful businessman in citrus, speaks at Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League in Boston. He talked about being a Black entrepreneur.
“The public or consumers don’t know the difference,” Wright told the group. “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 builds the James W. Wright building at the corner of Voorhis and Clara avenues, kitty-corner to the historic Greater Union First Baptist Church, in what was known as the Yemassee area. The bricks used were from the Bond Sandstone Brick Co. of Lake Helen.
Sidney Johnston, a Stetson University-affiliated historian who has worked on Wright Building restoration efforts, noted “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.”

Booker T. Washington Theater adjacent to the building is developed.

Dr. Samuel W. Poole, DeLand’s first Black dentist, establishes a dental office on the second floor. The practice would remain for many decades, serving both Black and white patients.

During the Great Depression, Wright maintains a two-thirds occupancy rate in the building, which houses many different kinds of businesses. Throughout its vibrant business life, the Wright Building was host to: a beer garden, apartments, a grocery store, restaurants, fruit merchants, and many more.
Wright’s investment in the building helped spawn its own neighborhood, known as Wright’s Corner, and the streets were lined with mom-and-pop shops, cafes, clubs and restaurants.

In this post-segregation time period, myriad reasons contribute to a downturn in historic African American neighborhoods, including a rise in illegal drug use in the 1980s and the subsequent crackdown that disproportionately affected minorities. Other factors included the deaths of older residents, and difficulty competing with lower prices provided by more affluent, and predominantly white-owned, stores, along with a long history of discrimination, particularly in home-finance lending.

After four decades of slow downturn in the area, Greater Union First Baptist Church acquires the deteriorating Wright Building at a tax-deed sale. The church then transferred ownership to its charitable organization, Greater Union Life Center.

Urgent restoration efforts begin, as the historic landmark is in danger of structural failure. The roof and walls were stabilized. Over the next several years, a series of grants are awarded, enabling the Life Center to slowly but surely restore the structure, whose exterior has remained more or less intact.

On Feb. 1, the National Park Service lists the James W. Wright Building in DeLand on the National Register of Historic Places.

With racial justice on their minds, discussion arises among DeLand city officials and others about the possibility of creating a historic district in the Yemassee district. DeLand currently has four historic districts: its Downtown area, the Stetson University campus, the Garden District on the southeast side of Downtown, and the Northwest Historic District.


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