ORLANDO, FL. – During the month of February, travelers at Orlando International Airport (MCO) can share a lesser-known chapter of Orlando’s tourism history with a visit to the exhibition celebrating the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Wells’Built Museum of African American History & Culture.
The museum is housed in the historic hotel built in 1929 by Dr. William Monroe Wells at 511 West South Street in Orlando’s Parramore community, with a mission to “collect, preserve and exhibit historical artifacts and information” that tell the story of African Americans in Orlando and Florida.
The exhibition continues through February 28, and is on view at the airport’s 3rd Level, near the Checkpoint for Gates 70-129 (by the Starbucks) in the Main Terminal.
“Orlando is and has been a diverse community. The Orlando of today was built on that history of diversity and the Wells’Built exhibit helps tell that story to all who visit this globally acclaimed destination,” says Phil Brown, Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
Visitors can see a sampling from the museum collection, including historical photographs of Central Florida Black legends such as Bessie Coleman, the first American woman to earn an international pilot’s license, in 1921, from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France. Coleman was known to fly in and out of what is now Orlando Executive Airport, and a nearby street was dedicated in her honor. Also on display are works by Odell Etim (1948-2012), a contemporary African American artist who lived and worked in Central Florida.
“We want to preserve our history to share with generations to come, so that they might understand,” says Florida Rep. Geraldine Thompson, the founding president of the Association to Preserve African American Society, History and Tradition (PAST), which operates the museum. For more information, visit www.Wellsbuilt.org.
By the 1990s, the original two-story hotel had fallen into disrepair but was saved from demolition and restored, and was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The nearby South Street Casino, also built by Dr. Wells, was not a gambling establishment, but served as the go-to venue to hear traveling entertainers, as well as to celebrate graduations, weddings and other memorial events in the lives of Parramore residents. It was destroyed by fire in 1987.
In the 1930s and 1940s heyday, the hotel and casino hosted many Black travelers and celebrities. Among the distinguished guests were famous African Americans including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, baseball greats Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, and music legends 8.8. King, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles.
Basic MCO Information: In 2019, Orlando International Airport welcomed more than 50 million annual passengers making it the busiest airport in the state and the 10th busiest in the U.S. MCO is currently engaged in a $3.76 billion Capital Improvement Program to increase capacity and enhance customer convenience.
Twenty Years Bold:
Wells’Built Museum of African American History & Culture
February 1 – 28, 2021
Orlando International Airport,
3rd Level, near Checkpoint for Gates 70-129
Almost 100 years ago, Dr. William Monroe Wells – the only Black doctor in town, who is credited with delivering more than 5,000 babies before his retirement – built a hotel and an entertainment venue In his thriving community of Parramore In downtown Orlando. He wanted to make sure that African Americans had a safe place to stay when they visited the Orlando area. Dr. Wells was issued the building permit for the hotel In 1926 and It opened In 1929.
In the 1930s and 1940s heyday, the Wells’Bullt Hotel and South Street Casino hosted many Black travelers and celebrities who did not have accommodations available to them In other areas of Central Florida due to segregation. Among Its distinguished guests were famous African Americans including first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, baseball greats Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, and music legends B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles.
Today, visitors to the Wells’Built Museum can see some of the original 1930s furniture and decorations from the 20 guest rooms as well as memorabilia from Parramore residents.
The closed hotel building was almost lost to urban renewal when the city wanted to raze the building In the mld-1990s. The old hotel found a champion in then-State Rep. Alzo J. Reddick Sr., who grew up in Parramore and worked as a paperboy delivering newspapers to the hotel. With the help of the Trust for Public Lands, Reddick advocated to save and refurbish the building. The ground floor became 3,400 square feet of exhibit space and the second floor, an office. Remodeling took two years.
In 1997, the building was acquired by the Association to Preserve African American Society, History and Tradition Inc. (PAST), which continues to work to restore and preserve the structure as well as the heritage. Although the casino was destroyed by fire in 1987, the original Wells’Bullt Hotel, 511 W. South Street, was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places In 2000.
The Wells’Bullt museum officially opened during Black History Month In 2001. Since then, it continues its mission to collect, preserve and exhibit historical artifacts and information that tell the story of African Americans in Orlando and Florida.
“We want to preserve our history to share with generations to come, so that they might understand,” says Florida Rep. Geraldine Thompson, the founding president of PAST, which operates the museum.
The community Is always welcome to visit, explore and invest in the preservation and education efforts.
Find more information or to schedule a tour, visit www.Wellsbuilt.org.