The Riley House was constructed circa 1890 on the fringe of a community called Smokey Hollow. Its owner, John Gilmore Riley, rose to prominence as an educator and civic leader. He received formal education from public and private institutions. Riley began his first teaching job in 1877 at a school in Wakulla County. In 1892 he became principal of the Lincoln Academy (located at 438 West Brevard Street in Tallahassee, Florida) where he served until his retirement in 1926.
In addition to a forty-nine year career of educational leadership, Mr. Riley also served as Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Florida, an African American fraternal organization. Riley was among the few African Americans in Tallahassee to own property at the turn of the century. He acquired seven major downtown parcels of land, among them including the property on which he built his home, the site of the Department of Natural Resource and Bryant Building and the parking lot of the Florida State University Law School. The Riley House remains as a legacy of the African American middle class that emerged during his lifetime.
The two-story wood frame building covered with weatherboard was originally T-shaped in plan with the upright “T” perpendicular to Jefferson Street. At a later date, a two-story addition was constructed in the rear of the building. This addition is also perpendicular to Jefferson street but not inline with the upright of the “T”. The gable roof of the main structure has a brick chimney on the ridge of the cross gable. The entire structure rests on brick piers. The gallery has turned post and plain balustrades and there are decorative cutwork brackets. The front door has a large pane of glass in the upper half and wood panels below.
The rehabilitation of the John G. Riley House has been a multi year project involving the hard work and cooperation of many individuals and organizations.
Efforts to rehabilitate the building began in the late 1970’s. The Riley House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The City Department of Community Improvement put up a $94,000 in block grant money matched with state and federal funds for the rehabilitation, which was completed in 1982. The following year the John G. Riley Foundation purchased the building. The Florida NAACP assisted this effort and used the house temporarily as its headquarters.
In 1996, the Riley House became the John G. Riley Center/Museum of African American History and Culture. Through research, exhibits, educational productions and publications, conferences, workshops and an oral history component, the significance of African American history as a vital part of America¹s history is interpreted and presented.
The Riley House has been an ongoing preservation efforts involving many organizations and individuals over the years. It serves as an important symbol of the African American leadership in Florida¹s Capital city, and is included on the Florida Black Heritage Trail, which recognizes important African American landmarks around the state.