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An FGCU exhibit on the Black Experience in Lee County works to bring communities together

Most days it’s quiet in the exhibit room in the Florida Gulf Coast University Library and Archives. In hushed tones, visitors leisurely followed the physical displays and photos on the walls.

But on a recent Wednesday afternoon in April, the quiet room came to life as a group of women converged to see and experience the latest exhibit together.

“We’re from a very big county, as you know and we don't always cross paths every day of the week. So, we thought this was a wonderful opportunity to bring people together to meet one another to get to know each other and also to experience this beautiful exhibit.”

Madelon Stewart represented the Sanibel League of Women Voters and the Progressive Women of Southwest Florida.

Diane Spears, also part of the Progressive Women to Southwest Florida, and one of the first Black nurses at Lee Memorial Hospital, represented a contingent of women from Mount Hermon Church from the predominantly black neighborhood of Dunbar in Fort Myers.

“And I'm I'm so excited today because this is part of it: Needing to understand each other. Let's teach ourselves about the different races, so we can get rid of all the myth and be able to understand and feel it most sensitive to what’s going on with each race. But let me tell you with the two groups sitting here, this room has so much spirit and so much life, and so much inspiration. It's just about the brain me to tears.”

Bailey Rogers, Archives Coordinator for the Special Collections, describes the exhibit and the partners who helped put it together.

“The exhibition is a culmination of partnerships between the Lee County Black History Society and with Jerry Eady, who works at the Lee County School Systems of telling the story of Black history here in Lee County. It was a lot of hard work, but it was really rewarding and to see people come from the community and see themselves represented in our space, it's just really awesome.”

The exhibit focuses on many of the people who were first in the Lee County Black community.

Nelson Tillis, the first black man (to settle his family in Lee County) in 1867. Isaac Anderson Jr., the first black judge of Lee County. Veronica Shoemaker, the first Black member of the Fort Myers City Council, and Lawrence Man, publisher of the Ebony Star newspaper.

Diane Spears was moved to see people she knew and respected throughout the exhibit.

“Of course everybody know Veronica Shoemaker. Everybody know, Judge Anderson, but to see Man up there and then also to see Lawrence, Vincent Lawrence. I remember him. I remember being younger and him and Man just fighting for equal rights and to see them on that wall just blew me away. It blew me away.”  “of course we see,” (fades out)

Archives Assistant Viviana Wayland described how it felt to see the response from the community.

“You know, doing all the research feels very second hand almost. You're kind of this onlooker onto the history and then to see this reaction from this group of people.  And then Lawrence Man’s wife Essie; she didn't know she didn't know that he was even going to be in the exhibit and so getting that reaction from the community was very rewarding and just made it feel like all the work, it  was worth it.”

Bailey Rogers was also pleased that people who were a part of the exhibit were also there in person.

“In addition to Lawrence Man’s wife coming, Audrea Anderson, who was Judge Anderson's widow, she came for the first time to see and she loaned some items to us to put on exhibition from her husband. And so just being able to see her see her husband up there was just very heartwarming and touching.”

Diane Spears shared what she thought people should take away from the exhibit.

“You know what? People that I walk with and live with, look what they did. It's a sense of pride that they should walk away with and I believe the conversations I'm hearing and smiles I see on the faces, I believe that's happening.”

After the event, Madelon Stewart said she saw the value of bringing these various groups of women together.

“To have them get to know each other, share stories, share experiences, so that that we can make a community that's better for everybody.”

“The Black Experience in Lee County” exhibit is available until April 28 at the Archives, Special Collections, & Digital Initiatives of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Bradshaw Library. A digital exhibition is slated for online later this summer.