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Black History in Southwest Florida-A look back

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In celebration of Black History month, WGCU brings you stories about the people, places and events in Black history that helped shape Southwest, Florida.

Lee County Black History Society

The Lee County Black History Society, is a nonprofit organization, that was founded in 1994 by Janice Cass.

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The group initially began in the late 1980’s, bringing the community together to commemorate Black History Month with a month long Black film festival.

Through the years, people donated artifacts and historical pieces to celebrate the many contributions African Americans have made in our region.

The group soon acquired office space, a building and then grew into the Williams Academy Black History Museum.

Cass shares how vital it is to educate young minds and celebrate Black History and other cultures.

“If we are to ever learn how to live together, as a country, a united country with respect for all of the people within the country, we have to pay homage to the importance the significance, the need for different kinds of people to make a better world.”

The Society is working on developing a Black Cultural center on the Museum site at Clemente Park on Henderson Ave. in Fort Myers.

Nelson Tillis

He is known as the first Black settler in Lee County and Fort Myers. Nelson Tillis was a freed slave, he was a farmer, a fishing guide and a hauler of buttonwood. Thomas A. Edison was one of his clients.

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Tillis arrived in Fort Myers on Christmas Day 1867 with Capt. Peter Nelson, William S. Clay and John Powell. He and his wife Ellen Summerall Tillis, who was white, settled on about 100 acres on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River.

The couple had 11 children. Tillis built a small school on his property and hired Wesley Roberts from Key West to serve as a live-in school teacher for his children.

In 1900 the Tillis family moved to Riverside Avenue, now McGregor Blvd.

Descendants of the Tillis family continue to live in the Fort Myers area.

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Amos Alvoid Thomas

Amos Alvoid Thomas -- known as A-A --influenced generations of black youth in Hendry County.

A. A. Thomas grew up in Florida and received a master's degree from Columbia University, on the edge of Harlem in New York City. But he returned to Southwest Florida, to *another Harlem -- the black community on the edge of Clewiston.

For 46 years, Thomas was the principal at Harlem Academy -- the all-black school. Former Hendry County commissioner Janet Taylor was a student there. She says Thomas had one message for young people: Education is your ticket out of Harlem.

Taylor says Thomas' students went on to become doctors, lawyers and educators.

After the school system was integrated, Thomas became assistant superintendent of Hendry Public Schools.

He died in 1997. A park in Clewiston is named in his honor.

A-A Thomas: teacher and mentor to Hendry County’s black young people.