Sen. Geraldine Thompson chairs the Florida Museum of Black History Task Force. | Colin Hackley, News Service of FloridaSen. Geraldine Thompson chairs the Florida Museum of Black History Task Force. | Colin Hackley, News Service of Florida
Sen. Geraldine Thompson chairs the Florida Museum of Black History Task Force. | Colin Hackley, News Service of Florida

Black history museum moves forward in St. Johns County

Published on June 28, 2024 at 2:54 pm

A state task force voted Friday to submit a report to the governor and the Legislature that outlines suggestions on how to build, market, operate and eventually make self-sufficient a Black history museum proposed for St. Johns County.

“We’re just simply turning the report over to the Florida Legislature to take the next steps of action,” said Tony Lee, a member of the Florida Museum of Black History Task Force and the state university system’s interim assistant vice chancellor of public affairs.

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The task force voted 6-1 to move forward with the report, with Chairwoman Geraldine Thompson, an Orange County Democrat who chairs the panel, dissenting. Lawmakers set up the task force in 2023, and the museum does not have funding.

The report calls for a study of the St. Johns County site. But Thompson unsuccessfully sought to get the Department of State to conduct a broader feasibility study that also would have looked at potential sites in Eatonville and Opa-locka.

“It’s something that, you know, I’ve been advocating for since the task force was convened and we began our work,” Thompson said. “Without a feasibility study, we’re really operating in the dark. We’re just kind of supposing and hoping that this is going to be successful without any concrete data.”

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But other members of the task force contended the idea was an attempt to negate a vote last month to put the museum in St. Johns County. A proposal from Eatonville in Central Florida ranked second, followed by Opa-locka in Miami-Dade County.

Backers of placing the museum in Central Florida haven’t given up on reversing the site decision.

Rep. Bruce Antone, an Orlando Democrat who was a sponsor of the 2023 museum legislation, urged against approving a task force report and letting the legislative process start over in 2025.

“The task force did not do what it was supposed to do as required by the legislation,” Antone told the panel Friday.

Antone said Thursday that a new task force needs to be put in place that does not include political appointees and can provide insight into history that needs to be displayed.

Antone also criticized the site selection process, which ended up pitting the St. Augustine area against a Black community in Central Florida.

The community that houses the museum is expected to provide matching funds for the construction and operations.

In brief comments to the task force, St. Johns County Administrator Joy Andrews disputed wetlands and environmental concerns that critics have raised about the proposed 17.5-acre site, which is owned by the Florida Memorial University Foundation. Andrews also said a recent change in leadership at the foundation isn’t expected to affect its commitment to the St. Johns site.

Questions were raised last month about rankings given by Rep. Kiyan Michael, a Jacksonville Republican and task force member. Michael gave the St. Augustine-area location a perfect score and Eatonville its lowest marks. Michael said she did not “act deliberately” to affect the scoring.

The proposed site is expected to handle a 100,000-square-foot facility or larger. At $1,000 a square foot, such a facility would require at least $100 million to build and maintain, according to an estimate.

The museum complex would include such things as meeting rooms, banquet facilities and a performing arts theater available for private events.

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