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‘When They Integrated, the Black Community Disintegrated’: Brothers Open Museum In Central Florida to Share Stories Left Out of History Books

Charles Luster, 79, and his brother Harvey Lester, 73, have dedicated the past 30 years of their lives to collecting Black history, stories you won’t find in most history books. The brothers opened the first and only African American Heritage Museum in Polk County, Florida, in 1993. They say knowing our history is more important today than it’s ever been. 

“Young people need to know about our history [and] go back as far as they possibly can; even back to Africa to learn the DNA of what we are and who we are and not what ‘they say we are,’” stated Charles. “We came to America empty-handed, not empty-headed.”

You can find a little of everything in the museum such as the original irons, old movie show tickets, Black face masks and mammy dolls.

“A lot of artifacts were given to me by white people,” explained Charles. “They owned it for years. Once we opened up the museum they called us and said they have a display or bought a house and these [mammy dolls] were in there.” 

The mammy doll is based on a caricature of a Black woman during the Jim Crow era. The image of mammy is most commonly known for cooking, cleaning and taking care of her master’s kids. Many times the mammy spent more time with her white family than she did her own.

However, the brothers tell me the best items in the museum are articles written on African-Americans that have done prominent things in the community.

Like Tom Burnett, a successful businessman in the county seat of Bartow who owned several businesses in the 1950s, including a general merchandising store, and a theater and dance hall. 

“On Friday night we had James Brown, Muddy Waters, and Sam Cook. Basically all these people performed there [dance hall] on Friday nights,” said Charles.

The museum is open now by appointment only due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the brothers say they are determined to keep their doors open to encourage the next generation to come back to the community and build it up. 

“The younger generation needs to know we used to have our own everything,” said Charles. “We [were] an individual section of town. We had our own mechanics, grocery stores, taxi service; when they integrated, the black community disintegrated.”  

The goal of the integration during the 1960s civil rights era was to break down discrimination barriers. However, Charles says that at that time integration took more than it gave. 

“And that’s what we’re doing now – trying to get the young folks back interested in building in Bartow and not just these bigger cities,” said Charles. 

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