Episode 85

85. The John G. Riley House is All That Remains of Smokey Hollow. Althemese Barnes Turned It Into a Museum on Tallahassee’s Black History

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About this Episode

During the period of Jim Crow and the Black Codes, a self-sustaining Black enclave called Smokey Hollow developed near downtown Tallahassee, Florida. As the first Black principal of Lincoln High School, John G. Riley was a critical part of the neighborhood. In 1890, he built a two-story house for his family—only about three blocks from where he was born enslaved.

In the 1960s, the city of Tallahassee seized and destroyed the neighborhood as part of an urban renewal project through eminent domain. Riley's house was all that remained, thanks to activists who fought its demolition. Althemese Barnes was determined to not let the history fade: as founding director of John G. Riley Research Center and Museum, she transformed the building into a place where people can learn about Smokey Hollow.

In this episode, Barnes talks about creating a museum to connect with young visitors, the process of becoming familiar with Florida's museum organizations which are often resistant to interpreting Black history, and the long process of building a commemoration to Smokey Hollow in Tallahassee’s urban landscape.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 85. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

John Gilmore Riley was born enslaved on a Tallahassee, Florida plantation in 1857.

Althemese Barnes: John Gilmore Riley was born into slavery about three blocks from here. After slavery ended, he chose education for a career and became the first black principal of the Lincoln high school that was built to provide an education for newly free slaves and their descendants.

Here - where we’re sitting right now -- is the John G. Riley House and Museum in what is now basically downtown Tallahassee, and this is Althemese Barnes, the founding director of the museum.

Althemese Barnes: Hello, my name is Althemese Barnes and I am the founding director of the John Gilmore rally research center and museum. And I've also been, I'm still the executive director and I've been that for 24 years.

The John G. Riley House -- a handsome two story wood house -- sits in the same neighborhood as the older well-kept plantation homes.

Tallahassee in 1857 was the center of Florida’s plantation economy, a system built almost entirely on enslaved labor. Enslaved people outnumbered white people three to one. Of the 779 white families living here in 1860, nearly two thirds owned at least one person.

Althemese Barnes: Once the slavery system broke down or was eliminated in the area, a lot of the properties remained a part of that establishment. And a lot of the Blacks who worked on the plantation remained in the area. Over time, other Blacks moved in. So ultimately, it became this African American enclave we call it. And it's over 80 families settled around the 1870s.

The families had stores. They had churches. They had a school that operated out of new Saint John AME church. Um, they had a Woodyard and I say all that to say that it was a pretty much self sustaining community. They had pretty much everything that was needed, which was important because it was doing on the days of segregation, legal segregation.So they were limited in terms of where they could go to shop. Where they could go for entertainment and what have you.

And during the period of Jim Crow and the Black Codes, this neighborhood, this enclave, became known as Smokey Hollow.

Althemese Barnes: Why the name Smokey Hollow? With our younger visitors, we have fun with that, but Smokey Hollow grew up out of the fact that, okay, it's an all-Black community. So a lot of the more, I would say, undesirable elements ended up in Smokey Hollow. So you have the electric station, the first electric building, the incinerator where all of the city’s trash was burned was in Smokey Hollow. Many of the women did domestic work, white families brought in their clothes and back then the women did the wash outside over a black smudge pot. So they had to make these fires. And so he would always see smoke coming up from the fire pots and then the train ran right through Smokey Hollow.

So what does it emit smoke? So that's all of that is about the smoke part. Then we say to the children, well, where are we? Are we on a hill? No, we are in a hollow. So that's the Smokey Hollow.

John G. Riley was a critical part of the self-sustaining neighborhood. As the principal of the the Black Lincoln academy, which later became Lincoln High School, he was known as Professor Riley. He also served as a Guardian -- a kind of official record keeper of births and deaths for Black people in the Smokey Hollow neighborhood.

The majority of houses in Smokey Hollow could be described architecturally as “shotgun homes”. Riley was able to buy some, and rent them to tenants in Smokey Hollow.

In the 1890s, Riley built this grander house for his family on the northern end of Smokey Hollow.

Althemese Barnes: this house, when it was built, Was a very upscale, big deal for Tallahassee, for a Black person. Because if you think of the fact that, okay, you have a person who was born a slave and he was a slave until he was about eight, nine years old then along came. Another time in history when people like Mr. Riley still, we're not allowed to learn, to read and write. So he had to slip and get books. He had an auction. Yeah. Riata who was very learned it. So she could teach him how to read and then he grows up a little more, but he still has obstacles.

And then. Look at the fact that other people counted on him. And then you Jim Crow and the Black Codes. Yeah. Black people, especially the men were in danger. Couldn't do things that other men did. There were lynchings close by because the jail was in Smokey Hollow, and they could it pass in there every day.

I grew up in Tallahassee—in fact, I grew up and went to school less than 2 miles from Smokey Hollow, but I had never even heard of it, not even once.

So why had I never heard of it? That was the question I came to the Riley house to ask.

It turns out there’s a lot of reasons, but it all stems from an event that Barnes simply refers to as eminent domain.

14 years after Riley died, the city of Tallahassee decided that it needed the land that the Smokey Hollow neighborhood sat on -- and proceeded to take it as public property through eminent domain.

Althemese Barnes: In 1968 the community was eminent domained, you had maybe about eight families that were able to negotiate and stay in there long enough to get money for that property.

The residents were told that the city needed the land to build a new capital complex -- Tallahassee is the capital of Florida -- but not much actually came of the project save for the construction of a new road over the neighborhood, and this was the Talalhassee I was familiar with.

The community: erased out of the urban landscape, and out of the minds of people like me.

But not for the former residents, who forever resented eminent domain.

With most of Smokey Hollow already cleared out, in the 1970s, the city also had its sights on the Riley House itself.

Althemese Barnes: the idea was to demolish the house and turn it into an electric substation here.

Former residents of Smokey Hollow -- many of whom were taught by Riley -- rallied to prevent the home from being destroyed. The house was fully restored in 1981.

Barnes says that it was the preservationists’ goal that the house would serve as a center to interpret local African American history.

And that’s where Barnes comes in. In 1996 she stepped forward to turn the dream into a reality, starting with oral histories.

Althemese Barnes: We were the first people to come over to get it all cleaned up after the restoration, to turn it into a research center and museum. There are many ways to interpret this house history through aspects of his house. One of the first things I did when I came here. I said, we don't want to just be a museum with pictures on the wall. I wanted to document history that has been ignored, neglected.

So with my old camcorder camera and tripod, I did almost a hundred interviews. All the people are deceased now.

If people want to know anything about the Black history, the real authentic Black history.

You have to talk with people who lived it. Someone else might tell you something, but your primary source is much better.

Today the dream is realized. The museum doesn’t just have pictures on the wall..There’s even a talking, Audio Animatronic likeness of Riley which was, in a very Florida twist -- donated by the Disney cooperation.

Audio Animatronic Riley: “If you don’t know your roots, people can tell you anything and convince you of its truthfulness.”

Barnes says that the museum uses the years of Riley’s life as an interpretive method to provide context for the legal forces of segregation acting on Smokey Hollow and Black people across the nation.

Althemese Barnes: We kind of bring it up even with, with the birth and death date. Mr. Riley was born in 1857, so we said, okay, what famous court decision happened in 1857? And if it's then middle school or up students, keep thinking, if you think. Oh, Dred Scott. Yes. Dred Scott decision. Tell me about Dred Scott. Black man trying get his freedom. Didn't work. Courts ruled against him. Okay. Mr. Riley died in 1954. What happened in 1954 relates to education? Oh yes. Brown vs the board of education!

The location reviews of the John G. Riley House and Museum mostly express gratitude to learn what reviews didn’t learn in school. There aren’t too many museums in Tallahassee that interpret these kinds of histories. Barnes knows all too well how much work -- often bureaucratic work -- is necessary to keep the memory of Smokey Hollow in the city of Tallahassee.

A more recent example of this comes in the City’s development of a new 24 acerpark, called Cascades park on mostly land that used to be Smokey Hollow.

Althemese Barnes: Now here we are with these 24 weeks, well, we will do this part. And the whole thing was that the people doing the development city County, whomever was making no mention. Of the footprint, of the original footprint.

And when it was time for Q and A, I raised my hand and it got to the point where people knew what I was going to say, you know, I think you need to represent the history of what was here before. You make this into cascades park, bam, no reference to smoke hour that went on for about two years.

Finally, after a shift in project management, Barnes was invited to create a group that would commemorate Smokey Hollow at Cascades Park.

Althemese Barnes: So we met for about, I would say two and a half, three years identified people from Smokey Hollow, brought them in. Did oral history histories. We had work groups, we got a bit map, they will come and put a sticker. Okay. This family that was here is they mopped where everybody lived, where every business was located, everything we needed to document Smokey Hollow.

The results of Barnes’s efforts are now right across the street from the John G. Riley house.

Park goeres pass the Smokey Hollow Commemoration -- which includes historical places and cleverly designed 3D outlines of the ubiquitous Smokey Hollow shotgun houses.

Althemese Barnes: We really wanted to put real shotguns, but there was the safety security factor, that kind of thing. And so we decided now what should we call these and run around? And so we said spirit houses, because, because though Smokey Hollow is not here, the spirit of Smokey Hollow lives on.

When she stepped forward to work on the museum in 1996, Barnes was unfamiliar with the museum world -- she had worked in state government. She had never written a grant. But she became familiar with the museum world in Florida. She helped found the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network, which features landmarks and museums all across the state. She wrote grants. She helped others write grants. In order to fund projects that were overlooked by the mostly white historical establishment, she realised that she needed to sit on committees that decided which grants should be awarded, and then she sat on those committees.

Althemese Barnes: But to this day, there are still resistant. If you go to some of the organizations that are supposed to be representing the state museum groups, associations, go to some of their meetings… phish. And it's really unfortunate because there's a rich history here.

Now I would say during the past, say five to seven years, I've noticed more and more as a few younger people come up, they have come in wanting to know what are you doing?

But it's a richness that people have missed all these years. The resources were there, but they didn't have the people with the right mindset. And this is all a part of this social justice that people talk about.

And then the house itself built 1890. How many years ago was that? In a person's life they aren't supposed to still stay in, but this house is standing because some people cared about it.

This has been Museum Archipelago.