The 462 year-old city has seen the influence of many cultures and countries, but the influence of the Black community has played a large part in shaping the city into what it is today. In the heart of Pensacola is a cabin that belonged to Julee Panton, a free woman of color who is said to have tried to purchase the freedom of enslaved Blacks in the early 1800s. A bust of Martin Luther King Jr. sits in Pensacola’s Martin Luther King Plaza, placed there in 1993 to celebrate the work of the legendary Civil Rights leader, and a memorial of Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, the first Black officer in the history of the United States military to attain 4-star full general rank, sits in a plaza dedicated to him.
Pensacola’s Fort Pickens, one of the few Union-occupied forts in the south during the American Civil War, was recently accepted into the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The site, operated by the Gulf Islands National Seashore, was a beacon in 1861 and 1862 for freedom seekers. The fort was also defended by members of the 25th U.S. Colored Troops in 1864.
One of the clearest examples of the influence Black Americans have had on Pensacola can be found in the Belmont-Devilliers district. In the time of segregation, Belmont-DeVilliers was the commercial and cultural hub of Pensacola’s Black community. Known locally as The Blocks, the neighborhood was home to many Black-owned businesses, restaurants and music venues, including Abe’s 506 Club where such musical legends as Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ray Charles, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin all performed. Today, the Belmont-Devilliers district stays true to its history, filled with offices, shops and restaurants that offer some of the best culinary offerings in Pensacola including Blue Dot Barbecue and Five Sisters, among others.
How to experience it:
- Visit the General Daniel Chappie James Museum of Pensacola, Inc. to learn more about the general’s contributions to the U.S. military as well as the accomplishments and work of other black Americans in the military.
- Visit the Historic Pensacola Village to see Julee Panton’s cottage and get a feel for the way people lived in Pensacola before modern conveniences.
- Visit the Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow exhibit at the Voices of Pensacola co-hosted by the African American Heritage Society of Pensacola. The traveling exhibit was curated by the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.
- Visit the Belmont-Devilliers district to experience the food, culture and history that has helped shape Pensacola.
- Visit Fort Pickens at the Gulf Island National Seashore to get a glimpse of Pensacola’s history. Please note that at this time, Fort Pickens is temporarily closed to the public due to damage it sustained from Hurricane Sally this past September. Check the Fort’s site for updates on openings and closures.