One of Tallahassee’s oldest neighborhoods will soon be telling its story through the voices of its most prominent residents, even though they are no longer alive. Frenchtown’s historic celebration, including these "Soul Voices," will play out over four upcoming weekends.
Ann Roberts was born and raised in Frenchtown. To this day, she still lives in the house where she and her siblings were born.
“I do enjoy my house,” she smiled. “And I have some of the plants that my father put in. My father died in 1960 but some of his plants are still there. I wasn’t able to kill them, so they survived.”
Something else that has survived, said Roberts, is the Frenchtown community itself.
“We started in 1865. When the (Civil) War ended, people said, ‘Oh, we lost the war! What shall we do with these black people?’ So somebody said, ‘Give them Frenchtown! That’s where the French once settled. And besides it’s all mosquito and snake-infested and is doesn’t really come up to what we (white people) expect.’ So people came out of slavery and moved into Frenchtown.”
Roberts noted the area didn’t remain a pestilent backwater for long. Frenchtown residents responded to the racism and segregation by creating a vibrant, creative and thoroughly livable community; a community that produced many scholars, artists, and pioneers in many fields.
“We have the man who started the music department at Columbia University: Samuel Floyd. He came from North Carolina Street in Frenchtown. Alphonso McGee, first attorney to graduate from Florida A&M: Georgia Street in Frenchtown. Mathematician Salem Pope, Frenchtown. So it goes on and on. My neighborhood was a typical, thriving, beautiful neighborhood. I’d like to see that restored and brought to the forefront.”
But while full restoration may stay an elusive dream, Althamese Barnes, founding director emeritus of the John G. Riley Center and Museum, said the more immediate imperative is to recall and honor what was.
“To forget the past denies future generations their heritage and a foundation for hope,” she proclaimed. “If you can’t see it, and you can’t hear people who lived it talk about it, how do we know it happened?”
In the 1990s, Barnes launched a project to record the stories of as many old-time Frenchtown residents as possible. Those old VHS recordings now live in the digital domain, although the people who told their tales are now gone.
“We call it ‘Soul Voices’ because the people are no longer alive but their spirits are here through their children and other descendants. But (it was important) to get their stories of what it was really like and the oral history part,” she affirmed.
The Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency was involved in administering the grant that made the project possible, said the agency’s Sheila Williams.
“It’s actually something that is trail-blazing that many of the other areas like the Southside and elsewhere probably would eventually like to have, projects like ‘Soul Voices.’ It’s a model and catalytic project,” she insisted.
Williams said the Soul Voices project won a grant of around $180,000. But there will soon be much more in place to tell Frenchtown’s story. Althamese Barnes said the four-weekend celebration, called “Fall in Historic Frenchtown,” will culminate with the unveiling of historical markers throughout the neighborhood.
“There are markers over in Cascades Park so why don’t we take some of these documents, photographs and other content and put markers like that? So we submitted to CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) and they funded enough so we could do 9 markers initially. We had talked about 10, but 9 is a start. That’s fine. That’s good!”
The celebration begins on two successive Saturdays, October 12th and 19th. The Frenchtown Farmers Market will be open and nearby in the 400 block of West Georgia and Carolina streets will be a showcase of local artists. The Soul Voices will be heard in the Florida Peoples Advocacy Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Then on Saturday November 2nd, there will be a grand opening of the Frenchtown Commons Park on West Georgia Street. Then the unveiling of the historical markers and walking trail, along with more Soul Voices presentations, on Friday, November 8th.