Though it doesn’t actually break down this way, the state estimates tourism generates a $67 billion impact on Florida’s economy each year -- the equivalent of $1 billion per county. Numbers from the U.S. Travel Association suggest only California brings in more tourism revenue.
But in a state with a segregated history such as Florida, there are color lines, even in tourism – and that might not be a bad thing in this post-segregation era. In fact, Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) thinks it’s an untapped resource.
“Florida has embarked on a number of initiatives to expand tourism in Florida, such as medical tourism, space tourism, agritourism," Thompson says. "And this bill would establish a commission to enhance black cultural tourism.”
Thompson says Florida should do for its African-American heritage what states such as Tennessee have done. She wants to see a museum dedicated to black culture and to see sites notable for their contributions preserved, in much the same way Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, has been turned into a civil rights museum.
Across the street from the Capitol, at the Florida Museum of History, there are exhibits that highlight black culture in the state, such as walls displaying paintings by each of the 26 Highwaymen artists from the Fort Pierce area. There’s also an interactive exhibit featuring a statue of Esteban, believed to be one of the first Africans to have landed in the state.
Museum public relations director Gary Pettit says other such displays are in the works, in some part because the public has asked for them. One offering that’s in the works talks about the so-called “Black Seminoles” who became part of the native tribe of the same name…
“We do, actually, get requests for that, and that was one of the reasons why we really wanted to put the Black Seminoles in the new exhibit that we’re opening up," he says. "We’ve already designed it; it’s in kind of the construction phase. But when we were designing it we took that into account, because there were people that said ‘Hey, will you do a little bit more on the Black Seminoles? We want to learn more about them.’”
The cultural commission would be similar to an existing group, the Florida African-American Heritage Preservation Network. It coordinates efforts of and provides support to nearly 40 black cultural sites across the state. Althamese Barnes, who runs the John G. Riley House in Tallahassee – named for a black teacher who helped found schools for freedmen -- is one of the Network’s co-founders.
“A lot of our efforts to get support through the statewide tourism entities, such as Visit Florida, have not yielded a lot of results," Barnes says.
Barnes says she views Thompson’s commission as a parallel group to the Network, and would turn aside any claims it’s not needed because the Network already exists.
“Sometimes we have more than one entity that promotes, say, Native American culture or the Holocaust or Hispanic culture,” she says.
The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee passed Thompson’s bill late Monday, but it still has four more committee stops scheduled before it hits the Senate floor. A House companion hasn’t been slated for a hearing yet.