Until Ninth Avenue West near downtown was widened to four lanes in the late 1970s, it was a vibrant commercial center that served the black community of Bradenton for about a century.
“It disrupted the community,” said Fredi Sears Brown, 87, who grew up on Eighth Street just south of what was then called Central Avenue.
“It had everything one would need,” Brown said. “There were restaurants, a funeral home, grocers, churches and even a theater.”
Most of those businesses were torn down when the road, now called Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, became the busy east-west corridor for traffic it is today.
“It was the heart of our community,” Brown said. “It was very close-knit.”
She said as the children would walk to the segregated black Lincoln School on First Street the shop owners and residents would look out for them.
A scale model of the commercial strip from First to Eighth streets west is on exhibit at the Family Heritage House Museum, which Brown founded in 1990 with her husband, Ernest Brown, who died in 2001.
Margaret Miller constructed the diorama from information Caldonia Lewis and Buford Goodrum researched.
The museum, located in a wing of the State College of Florida library, focuses on the study of the achievements and history of African-Americans, locally and nationally.
With February being Black History Month, the Family Heritage House tends to attract more attention, said museum specialist Kathie Marsh.
Marsh said celebrating Black History Month helps in raising the awareness of African-Americans’ contributions to the nation.
“But it should be know there’s no such thing as black history,” she said. “(February) celebrates the history made by African-Americans, because a lot of it has been missed.”
The history of African-Americans is part of the overall history of America, Brown said.
“Establishing Black History Month is a good starting point,” she said, “but it should not be the only source.”
Learning about blacks’ contributions to the development of America should be part of everyone’s education as they grow up, Brown said.
That is one of the missions of the Family Heritage House.
The museum uses permanent exhibits and programs to accomplish this, Marsh said.
But it also reaches out to the broader community to get its message across.
For example, in preparation of a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution held Thursday at the museum, Marsh did research on the role of blacks in that war for independence.
“It’s amazing how much participation of African-Americans there was,” she said, “on both sides.”
According to the Library of Congress website, the national observance of Black History Month has its roots in a movement started by Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson in 1925.
The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which Woodson founded, declared Negro History Week be observed during the week in February that includes the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and famed abolitionist Fredrick Douglass (Feb. 14).
Americans embraced the idea, and black history clubs were started, teachers sought materials to assist in teaching the subject and white scholars and leaders endorsed the effort.
In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford expanded the observance to a month, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” according the Library of Congress.
The lack of knowledge of the historical contributions of blacks was the driving force for Brown and her husband to establish the Family Heritage House.
The couple’s personal collection of books and papers, which they accumulated during a life of service in such organizations as the National Urban League, has since expanded into a collection of books, historical documents, audio tapes, prints, photographs and family heirlooms.
With an extensive collection of records and documents from the 1880s, the museum has become nationally known as a place to study the Underground Railroad and has a rare copy of William Still's 1872 publication of “The Underground Railroad.”
The National Park Service recently issued the museum a certificate designating it as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.