The Riley House – As a Community Museum and Educational Center
The John Gilmore Riley Center/Museum for African American History & Culture, Inc. is a historical and cultural gem that sits at the bottom of a hill in downtown Tallahassee, at the corner of Meridian and Jefferson Streets.
The Riley historic home represents the thriving black neighborhood, known as Smokey Hollow, that once existed in what is just east of downtown Tallahassee. It is especially significant when compared to other such historical sites in that it is the last vestige we have of the accomplishments of an entire group of people, the black middle class, which emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The mission and purpose of the John Gilmore Riley Center/Museum for African American History & Culture, Inc. is to discover, archive and illuminate the blended interrelationship of African American, Native American and European history and preserve African American landmarks and legacies throughout the State of Florida as an enduring public resource through tourism and education. Established in 1996, the museum’s programs provide an environment and means to encourage and empower participants to develop an awareness of and gain an appreciation for the educational and social contributions of African Americans to Florida’s history.
The Founding of the John Gilmore Riley Center/Museum for African American History & Culture, Inc. in the Words of its Founding Director. . .
In the 1970’s, the City of Tallahassee put its sights on a two-story frame vernacular house at the foot of the hill in downtown Tallahassee as a perfect location for an electric substation. As word spread of the proposed demolition of the structure, local citizens, who were aware of its former owner, John Gilmore Riley, and his numerous accomplishments and contributions to the community, formed the John Gilmore Riley Foundation and rallied to prevent the home from being destroyed.
Many of the locals involved studied under Professor Riley at the Old Lincoln High School where he served as principal for 33 years. Countless others had rented from him in the historic Black community of Smokey Hollow, located in what is now downtown Tallahassee or worshipped at St. James C.M.E. (Colored Methodist Episcopal) Church, of which Riley was a considered a “pillar” church organizer. Across the state, he had inducted others into the Masonic Order during his tenure as Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Florida and some knew of his work with Booker T. Washington and the NAACP advocating equality and justice for African Americans and protesting illegal lynching throughout the south.
This generation of citizens rallied and saved the house from destruction and had it restored in 1981 with an intention of one day having it serve as a center to preserve African American history. However, those of this generation did not live long enough to accomplish the programmatic aspect of their vision. In the decade following the home’s restoration, several groups utilized the restored home for offices and meetings, including the local Tallahassee Branch of the NAACP.
As a young woman, I was privileged to sit among the original group that formed the John Gilmore Riley Foundation. Though comparatively younger than the others, I shared a high regard for preserving Mr. Riley’s legacy. After having served alongside the group of community elders and knowing its intentions, I prayerfully stepped forward in 1996, just a few months out of retirement, to open the house as a research center and museum. Now the rest is history.
Many persons are to be thanked for playing a significant part in saving the Riley House. Among the notables are: Nancy Dobson, past executive director of the Tallahassee Historic Preservation Board, who documented the significance of the house and had it placed in the National Register of Historic Places; Attorney Robert Travis and Dean M.S. Thomas, who labored as Chairmen of the John G. Riley Foundation Board through restoration; other chairmen Leon Russell, Arthur Teele, Jr. and T.H. Poole; Attorney Jesse McCrary, who served as Secretary of State, and was a strong advocate for restoration of the house; and Dr. A.E. Teele, Sr., who developed the history of the Riley House and Professor Riley.
I often tell young people that the generation before me saved the home from demolition, while my generation established the museum and its programmatic thrust, but it is now up to the next generation to step-up and do their part to preserve the legacy that the last two generations helped to protect. It is the revelation of this extraordinary journey, and a refusal to allow my sixteen year labor-of-love to be in vain, that I committed to selecting and mentoring the next generation of historians, museums directors, scholars and preservationists.
A 2010 Grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) jump-started a five-year Succession Plan to transition the organization, from two-decades of consistent senior leadership to new emerging leaders, by bringing younger professionals and paraprofessionals aboard to work within the Riley Center/Museum while preserving a significant part of our local, state and national African American historic treasures.
The time is right for the third generation to take the helm of this movement and assist not only Riley Museum, but to serve other such landmarks across the state and country.