The Williams Academy Black History Museum is significant for two reasons. Its building was an addition to one of the area’s first schools built for Black students using government funds. The museum preserves the history and culture of Black people in Lee County by using its displays to educate today’s generation about the trials and triumphs of Fort Myers’ Dunbar community.
The building you see today is a 1942 addition to the original 1913 Williams Academy Building. The 1913 building was the first government-funded school for Black students in Lee County.
The buildings were originally located right behind McCollum Hall on the southeast corner of Cranford Avenue and Lemon Street. Williams Academy was named for J.S. Williams, whose title was “Superintendent of the Colored schools” at the time. The 1942 building was moved onto the campus of present-day Dunbar Community School, which used to be the site of Dunbar High School.
Over the years, the 1942 building was used in many ways. It was a primary school with manual arts, fine arts, band, and choir classrooms. After that it was a daycare center, then a migrant facility, and finally, it became a storage room.
Eventually, the Lee County School District decided to demolish the building because it was no longer needed. Janice Cass, President of the Lee County Black History Society and Founder of the Williams Academy Black History Museum, learned what the School District wanted to do. She wrote them a letter on October 31, 1994, asking if they would donate the building to the Lee County Black History Society. In November, Lee County School District told Ms. Cass, “Yes, you can have the building—as long as you move it off the Dunbar Community School campus by February 1, 1995.”
Ms. Cass and the Lee County Black History Society began raising the money to move the building. In addition to fundraising, financial support came from many people and other sources in the Fort Myers area. Donations were made by the City of Fort Myers, Lee County government, the Banking Consortium, and by citizens throughout Lee County. County Commissioner Doug St. Cerny led government efforts for the project. Even the company that was supposed to demolish the building—Owen-Ames-Kimball Company, better known as O-A-K—donated the $3,000 they were paid to tear down the building. In all, the Lee County Black History Society raised $15,000 required to move the building.
What a gratifying day it was for the entire community when they finally saw the Flint and Doyle truck moving the building down Blount Street to Roberto Clemente Park! Even this physical act of moving took community effort. There was a ditch in the way of getting the building into the park. The Harper Brothers Company donated dirt to build a bridge across the ditch, while Fort Myers City Transportation workers volunteered to build the bridge. Once the building was safely over the dirt bridge, City workers removed the dirt and returned it to Harper Brothers.
Over the next two years, 1995 and ‘96, the Lee County Black History Society created a restoration plan for their future museum. They partnered with Barger & Dean Architects, Inc., the same company that restored the Dunbar Community School. By 1997, the History Society was ready to make the renovation. County Planner Gloria Sajgo helped them apply for a financial grant from the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, so that they could historically restore the Williams Academy building into a museum. They were successful! Once the grant funds were received, Barger & Dean Architects and O-A-K worked together on the renovation.
Restoration began on October 11, 1999, and was completed 10 months later. Finally, the museum was unveiled to the public on January 15, 2001. The Williams Academy Black History Museum kept the original layout of the building, with a central hallway dividing two classrooms on opposite sides. One classroom has artifacts and objects about the culture and history of the Dunbar community and its citizens, while the other room is an interactive classroom showing what class was like in a segregated school for black students.
The Williams Academy Black History Museum educates, preserves, and displays the history and culture of Black people in Lee County, and because of this, it is a great source of pride for the community.