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Black History Discovery Trail


Black History Discovery Trail graphic with photos of local Lakeland black leaders

February 15-26, 2021

The City of Lakeland invites you to join in on an adventure! Immerse yourself in some of the Black History of Lakeland by visiting each Discovery Trail stop and learning about the people, places, and events that shaped our community!


Begin Your Adventure

  • Discovery Trail Options: In Person & Virtual

    Discovery Trail Options

    In-Person:

    This self-led activity encourages participants to safely participate, with members of your household, following facility mask and temperature check requirements.

    • Begin at any Trail Stop
    • Pick up your own Black History Discovery Trail Activity Card (1 per person)

    Virtual:

    Join us on this page to venture onto the Discovery Trail virtually! Participants that provide an email address in the submission form will receive a certificate of completion and the opportunity to redeem a FREE visit to one of our Recreation Centers or Swimming Pools at a future date.

  • Trail Stops

    Visit the following trail stops to learn about leaders from across the City that forged the way for future generations and receive a sticker for your activity card:

    • Lakeland Police Department Lobby
      219 N Massachusetts Avenue
      Lakeland, Florida 33801
      Open 24 Hours

    • Lakeland City Hall Lobby
      228 S. Massachusetts Avenue
      Lakeland, FL 33801
      Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.

    • Jackson Branch Library Lobby
      1700 N Florida Avenue
      Lakeland, FL 33805
      Monday - Thursday, 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
      Friday, Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

    • Simpson Park Community Center Lobby
      1725 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue
      Lakeland, FL 33805
      Monday -Friday 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.
      Saturday 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.
      Sunday 12 p.m. - 4 p.m.

    • Coleman-Bush Building Lobby
      1104 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue
      Lakeland, FL 33805
      Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • Awards

    In-Person Participants:

    Bring your completed activity card to any City of Lakeland Recreation Center or Swimming Pool for a free visit. The first 100 completed cards, presented at Simpson Park Community Center, will receive a commemorative bag filled with goodies from City Departments.

    Virtual Participants:

    Virtual Discovery Trail participants that provide an email address in the submission form (below) will receive a certificate of completion and the opportunity to redeem a FREE visit to one of our Recreation Centers or Swimming Pools at a future date.


Virtual Trail

  • Lakeland Police Department
    • Lakeland’s Police Auxiliary, circa 1940s
    • Paul A. Diggs neighborhood sign
    • Lakeland Police Department’s first black officers (Left to Right: Thomas E. Hodge, Edgar T. Pickett, Jr., Samuel L. King, and Samuel L. Williams), 1954
    • Assistant Police Chief Clarence Grier, Lakeland Police Department

    Click photos to expand and view captions


    In April of 1943, an African-American auxiliary police force was established under the leadership of Paul A. Diggs (1890-1963) as part of the Civilian Defense Council. Their nightly neighborhood patrols helped law enforcement officers keep order. Members of the auxiliary were given credentials, sworn in, and furnished uniforms by the City. According to Diggs, they were the only such organization in the state of Florida that was authorized fully to make arrests. He also emphasized that the members of the group were fostering good relations between the black community and the all-white police staff. The Paul A. Diggs Neighborhood is named in his honor.

    The Lakeland Police Department hired their first African-American police officers in 1954—Thomas E. Hodge, Edgar T. Pickett, Jr., Samuel L. King, and Samuel L Williams. Many restrictions were placed on these newly-appointed officers due to the racial segregation of the time. These officers were not allowed to arrest white offenders without white officers present. They also had to use separate restroom facilities and locker rooms and could not provide security during parades in the white community. Despite these limitations, these officers rose above with distinction. Mr. Edgar T. Pickett went on to become a state-renowned forensics officer and was recognized by the Lakeland Police Department with the naming of their fingerprinting lab in his honor.

    Forging ahead from the trailblazing efforts of the African-American police officers of 1954, Assistant Chief Clarence Grier joined the Lakeland Police Department in 1963 rising to the rank of Assistant Chief of Police and honorably retiring in 1997. Lakeland’s second African-American Assistant Chief of Police was Assistant Chief Charles Thompson who came to Lakeland in 2004 after a long-decorated career in law enforcement from South Florida. Assistant Chief Thompson served Lakeland until retiring in 2013.

    The current (as of 2021) highest-ranking African-American officer of the Lakeland Police Department is Captain Marvin Tarver, beginning his service in 1996 and presently assigned as the Commanding Officer of the Support Services Division.

  • City Hall
    • Unidentified laborers laying tracks for the railroad, circa 1884
    • Lakeland’s first female black Mayor, Carrie Oldham
    • Mayor Carrie Oldham greeting President Jimmy Carter at the Lakeland airport, 1980

    Click photos to expand and view captions


    Railroads & Moorehead

    Lakeland was incorporated on January 1st, 1885. Its beginning goes back to early settlers living here with the desire to grow both in population size and economically in order to build a new city.  To do that, a change in transportation was needed, as it was not easy to get to Lakeland. This hope was realized when Henry Bradley Plant chose a path through central Florida for the Plant System Railroad that included Lakeland.  The plan was to connect Kissimmee to Tampa with workers and materials at each end moving toward each other until they met.  Early crews were sent out to grade the land level, then build the tracks.  To do this, a massive force of labor was required.  By 1885, approximately 200 experienced, male, African-American workers joined the railroad project.  They lived in a camp near Lake Wire that they called “Rome City.”  Work continued on nearby railroads for more than two years. After that, many of these laborers continued to work for the railroad company.  They brought their families, got married, had children, and the black camp area grew and developed into a successful community that came to be known as Moorehead.


    Oldham

    In 1980, Carrie Oldham was sworn in as the first female African-American mayor for the City of Lakeland. Oldham had been on the City Commission since 1978 and also served as Mayor Pro Tem prior to becoming Mayor of Lakeland.  She taught Political Science at Polk State College and focused her efforts on hiring, recruiting, and promoting local women and minorities during her tenure.  Consolidation and coordination of City and County services were also part of her goals.  While serving as Mayor, Oldham welcomed President Jimmy Carter to Lakeland when he was on a reelection tour in the region.

  • Larry R. Jackson Branch Library
    • Larry R. Jackson at the dedication for the new Branch Library that was later named in his honor.
    • Larry R. Jackson Branch Library
    • Virginia Avenue Branch Library, 1937
    • Virginia Avenue Branch Library, interior, with Librarian Elsie Dunbar

    Click photos to expand and view captions


    Larry R. Jackson (1940-1997) was born in Fort Lauderdale, but moved to Lakeland in 1974 to establish his law practice in the black community. He brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the area—from his Ph.D. in Political Science to his Peace Corps tour in Nigeria.  He was the cooperating attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund which helped desegregate Polk County Schools.  He was the first black citizen to complete the Chamber Leadership Lakeland program and the first black to run for a county judge position in Polk County. An ardent activist for equality in educational and recreational opportunities, he championed a branch library in the northwest community which opened in 1995.  In 1998, it was renamed Larry R. Jackson Branch Library to recognize his efforts.


    The Virginia Avenue Branch Library was converted from a bungalow using Works Progress Administration funds by the City of Lakeland to serve the black community during segregation. Prior to opening this branch library in 1937, black citizens were able to borrow materials brought over from the main library to a small space located at the high school.  Elsie Dunbar (1898-1967) served as the first librarian there.  She earned the first master’s degree awarded from Florida A & M College in 1947.  Her thesis was titled “The Role of Washington Park High School in a Program for Improving School/Community Relations.” The Virginia Avenue Branch Library closed in 1975 with the opening of the reading room at the Northwest Community Center.

  • Lakeland Electric Company
    • Washington Park High School, 1937
    • William A. Rochelle, namesake of Rochelle High School, which was formerly named Washington Park High School
    • Moorehead Graded School
    • Moorehead Students

    Click photos to expand and view captions


    In 1928, Washington Park High School opened its doors as the sixth black high school in the state of Florida.  Located on the corner of Tenth and Dakota Streets (now Martin Luther King Drive) it was a staple of the northwest black community. The first graduating class only had 10 students in 1930.  Long time educator, William A. Rochelle (1867-1955), served as principal for 22 years.  An outstanding citizen, Rochelle was involved with many desegregation efforts in Polk County.  In 1950, the high school was renamed in his honor to the William A. Rochelle High School.  A middle school opened in 1953 that bore the same name.  By 1977, this school was modified for elementary grades, and in 1992, it was reborn as Rochelle Schools of the Arts, a K-8 magnet school.

    According to a newspaper account in 1885, the black population of Lakeland was around 100.  The small community was noted as having a neat church and a good school.  Early black pioneer, Amos Stewart (1852-1922), was appointed Superintendent of the Lakeland Colored School in 1887.  The school was located at St. John’s Church and later relocated to a house that burned down in 1913.  In 1917, a two-story facility was purchased called Flanagan Hall that was used for the school.  This structure also burned, however, and eventually, a new school was built that served the black community until it closed in the 1960s.  The school was named Moorehead Graded School.  Thousands of Lakeland children walked through those halls until it was torn down in the 1970s.

  • Coleman-Bush Building
    • Northwest Community Center, exterior
    • Northwest Community Center, Reading Room
    • Charles A. Coleman
    • Dr. Gow Max Bush

    Click photos to expand and view captions


    The Northwest Community Center opened in 1975 as a multi-purpose center designed to offer space for a comprehensive range of services. These services included the Advisory Committee on Employment (ACE), which was created in 1968 to help Lakeland's unemployed citizens obtain productive jobs. Another feature was a reading room which functioned as a library. The reading room collection was moved from the former segregated Virginia Avenue Branch library to provide information and resources to the community.  The librarian there was Mrs. Yvonne Roberts.

    In 1980, the Northwest Community Center was renamed Coleman-Bush Building to honor two of Lakeland’s citizens, Mr. Charles A. Coleman (1920-1977) and Mr. Gow Max Bush (1909-1978). Mr. Coleman grew-up in Lakeland.  As a student, he worked part-time at Cleveland Heights Golf Course as a shoe shiner and caddie.  He graduated from Florida A & M with a master’s degree in 1949.  For 28 years, he served in public education as Principal at Mulberry Elementary, John Cox Elementary, and Lincoln Avenue Elementary Schools.  Coleman was elected to the City Commission in 1974 and became the second black mayor of Lakeland in 1977.  Gow Max Bush (1909-1978) earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College.  He practiced medicine in Lakeland for 26 years.  Bush was an active citizen in the community, serving on several Citizen Advisory Boards.

  • Simpson Park Community Center
    • Dr. David J. Simpson, Lakeland's first black Physician, with his wife, Julia Helen Chandler
    • Lakeland's first black Surgeon and Mayor, John Sidney Jackson

    Click photos to expand and view captions


    David J. Simpson (1870-1955) moved to Lakeland in 1909 to establish himself as the first general practitioner for the black community. His office was located on Rose Street near Kentucky Avenue.  He was active in community affairs and his persistent efforts resulted in the opening of Lakeland Colored Hospital in 1926.  Affiliated with white doctors as all were dedicated to healing the sick, they readily crossed racial boundaries to care for those in need.  With a shortage of doctors during the Spanish flu epidemic, Simpson filled in and cared for all.  Simpson Park Community Center is named in his honor.


    John Sidney Jackson (1921-1987) earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College after serving in active duty reserves. He moved to Lakeland in 1950, becoming the first black surgeon to practice in Lakeland.  He was a staff member on the whites-only Morrell Hospital and threatened to boycott if restrictions were not lifted.  Due to his efforts, the policy was changed.  In 1968 he became Lakeland’s first black City Commissioner and made history in 1972 as the first black Mayor of Lakeland.  Jackson Park on Martin Luther King Avenue is named in his honor.

  • Lakeland Fire Department
    • Fire Marshall Larry Riles, one of the first black firefighters for the Lakeland Fire Department
    • Fire Marshall Larry Riles featured on a CitrusConnection bus
    • Dorothy "Genny" McCiskill, Lakeland Fire Department's First Black Female Firefighter
    • Genny McCiskill at Lakeland's annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, 2020

    Click photos to expand and view captions


    The Lakeland Fire Department first hired black firefighters in the early 1980s. One of the first, Larry Riles (1954-2014), joined LFD in 1983. A Navy veteran, Riles rose from the rank of Firefighter to become Lakeland’s first black Fire Marshall in 2001. He is credited with growing and modernizing the prevention division, as well as expanding fire safety in the community.

    The first female firefighter hired by the City of Lakeland was also African-American. In 1987, Dorothy “Genny” McCiskill, at age 23, became the first woman to pass the rigorous physical test required to become a firefighter. McCiskill was a 1981 graduate from Kathleen High School where she was an athlete active in basketball, track, and volleyball. McCiskill blazed the trail for female firefighters to come after her, and her hiring led to the department recruiting other women in the late 1980s.

  • Virtual Participant Discovery Trail Certificate

    Participants that provide an email address in the submission form below will receive a certificate of completion and the opportunity to redeem a FREE visit to one of our Recreation Centers or Swimming Pools at a future date.

    Black History Discovery Trail (Virtual) 2021









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