African-American History

City leaders, planners, and historians have worked to preserve and restore the places and buildings that can help us learn more about the successes and challenges of those who came before us. These places also help us understand where we are now and be thoughtful about where we’re going as an inclusive community that celebrates diversity.

Orlando was still in its infancy in 1880—not even an official city yet—when Jonestown, a 12-block black community was founded near the banks of Fern Creek and a stone’s throw from Greenwood Cemetery. It was named for Sam and Penny Jones, who were thought to be its first settlers. Most residents were laborers who lived in small houses and shacks, but there were several residents who owned or ran businesses. 

After a fire destroyed a black land owner’s home in 1939, non-black residents protested the owner’s efforts to rebuild, and the city’s housing authority decided to demolish the structures in the Jonestown neighborhood and relocate residents to Griffin Park. This new public housing development in Parramore was named in memory of “Uncle” Charlie Griffin, an enslaved person who lived to the age of 102. 

During the 1930s–1950s, Parramore was the economic hub for African Americans in Central Florida, drawing visitors to businesses, doctors, restaurants, and shops. It was also a center for entertainment with several venues where famous musicians performed. The most popular spot was South Street Casino, a club built by Dr. Wells, which was located next to the Wellsbuilt Hotel. This is where Cab Callaway, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, B.B. King, and many others played for audiences who danced the night away. When the show stopped, the entertainers would head next door to the hotel to get a few hours of sleep before traveling to the next location of their tours.

Because segregation did not allow African Americans to live in the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods, the Parramore Heritage Neighborhood is where most of Orlando’s remaining African-American historic sites are located. Many of its early residents were also great community builders who helped instill and encourage the cultural pride that exists today.

We encourage you to continue reading below about some of the people and places that are woven into the fabric of downtown Orlando’s African-American heritage. 


Dr. Jerry B. Callahan (1883–1947)

Dr. Jerry B. Callahan was born on a family-owned plantation in South Carolina in 1883. Dr. Callahan moved to Orlando in 1908 after earning a medical degree from Shaw University. He was the first black doctor to open a medical practice in Orlando and the first to perform surgery at Orange General Hospital (now Orlando Health).

Mercedese Clark (1931–2012)

Mercedese Clark was a registered nurse, and in 1974, became the first African American to serve as the Orange County Health Department Director of Nursing. As a third-generation Orlandoan, Ms. Clark was a long-time champion for community investment and revitalization. She owned Clark’s Fashion Store on Church Street and was also an early advocate for the renovation of the Wellsbuilt Hotel and transformation into the Wells’Built Museum of African American History. 

Napoleon Ford (1927–1998)

Napoleon “Nap” Ford was an educator and civil rights leader who spent most of his life in Parramore. He taught at Jones High School and Winter Park High School. He played a key role in getting “Pappy” Kennedy elected to City Council in 1972, and in 1980, Mr. Ford was elected to serve as the first representative of the newly created District 5. He served his community for five consecutive terms before retiring in 1998. 

Dr. I. Sylvester Hankins (1895–1991

Sylvester Hankins, an Orlando native, graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1926. He was one of only four black doctors in town at that time. As an advocate for equal opportunity for black residents, Dr. Hankins led initiatives for schools, zoning, the arts, and residential development in what is now Washington Shores. 


Arthur Kennedy (1913–2000)

Born in 1913, Arthur “Pappy” Kennedy came to Orlando in 1928. He was elected to the Orlando City Council in 1973, the first African American to hold a seat. He won his campaign for a second term with a record-breaking 78% of the vote. Mr. Kennedy was a strong advocate for strengthening his community through education. He was involved with many organizations, including the United Negro College Fund and the NAACP, and was president of the Jones High School PTA.

Dr. Alzo Reddick (1937)

Alzo Reddick was born near Bartow, Florida in 1937 and moved to Orlando when he was six years old. That was when he discovered a love of books and the library. He was the first in his family to graduate from college and went on to earn a master’s and two doctorate degrees. In 1982, he became the first African American from the Orlando area to be elected to the Florida House of Representatives. He served consecutive terms from 1982 to 2000 and was the first Aftrican American in the state to pass a constitutional amendment, which he did—twice. Dr. Reddick is an Assistant Vice President at UCF. 

Z. L. Riley (1892–1973)

Zellie L. Riley was a significant civil rights leader and businessman in Parramore. Along with Dr. Wells and Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Riley played a key role in organizing the Orlando Negro Chamber of Commerce (now known as the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida) and was elected as its president in 1946. His imprint on the community endures with the  Z.L. Riley Park that was dedicated in his memory in 1977.

Dr. William Monroe Wells (1889–1957)

Dr. William Wells was one of the few black doctors in Orlando, and for a period during WWII he was the only one. During his years in practice, Dr. Wells was a crucial member of the community. He delivered more than 5,000 babies and often provided free healthcare for low-income black families. 



Dr. J.B. Callahan Neighborhood Center (formerly Jones High School And Callahan Elementary School)

In 1895, the first school for African Americans was built and became known as the Johnson Academy. It was moved years later and renamed Jones High School. When the high school was relocated again in 1952, the building became Callahan Elementary School until it was renovated and dedicated as the Dr. J.B. Callahan Neighborhood Center in 1987. With a variety of programs, camps, and activities for all ages, the center is the cornerstone of the Parramore community.



Ebenezer United Methodist Church (now Greater Refuge Memorial Church)

Ebenezer United Methodist church was the first African American Methodist church in Orlando built by African Americans. In 1872, a wooden structure was built on the corner of Church and Terry Streets to house the congregation. In 1927, the congregation built the Gothic-style brick structure. Over the years, structures were added, and it was completed in 1959 with the addition of the basement.

Ebenezer Church.jpg


The Hankins Building

Built in 1947, The Hankins Building was a professional building for black doctors and lawyers. Other tenants included a dentist, tailor, beauty salon and the local NAACP chapter. The Hankins Building is the only Art Moderne commercial building in the historic district from the mid 1930s. Though windows and doors have been replaced, the building still retains a high level of historic integrity and contributes to the character of the historic district.



Holden Street Elementary School 

The Holden Street Elementary School was built in 1935 and was the first school for Orlando’s African American students in grades 1–4. The building shown was constructed in 1950 and closed in 1971. The building served as administrative offices for the Lynx transportation system, and the site is now the headquarters of the Orlando Police Department.



Maxey-Crooms House

The Woodford James Maxey House was built around 1924 by local contractor Jim Murrell. It is a frame vernacular residence that features Craftsman elements. The house reflects the development and evolution of the local African-American community, not only because of its architectural merit, but also the owner’s achievements and success despite the discriminatory conditions of the time.



Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church

Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church was constructed in the early 1920s with concrete blocks. Members of the church, who were skilled craftsmen, handmade the blocks to look like stone. In 1980, the congregation moved to its present location at Burton Boulevard and Price Hall Boulevard.



Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church 

Organized by Reverend C.J. Scott in 1880, the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church was the first black church in Orlando. The congregation met in four different structures over the years until the current red brick Classical Revival church was built in 1956.  

Nicholson-Colyer Building

This two-story late Victorian commercial structure has been used as a bakery, dry goods store, drug store, and tailor shop. It was built in 1911 for J. E. Nicholson, a baker from Canada, and J. A. Colyer, the only black landowner in downtown Orlando at that time.



Shotgun Houses

Named for the clear, narrow path between the front and back doors, shotgun houses were one of the most popular styles of houses built in the Southern U.S. between the 1860s and 1920s. The Holden-Parramore Historic District was notable for its large number of them, though only a few remain in the area today.



South Street Casino

Dr. Wells also built the South Street Casino, a music and dance club that was located next to the hotel. It set the beat for the neighborhood with a large stage for musicians, performers, and famous entertainers. Its immense dance floor could accommodate around 200 people. 

Tinker Field History Plaza 

The original field and buildings at Tinker Field were dedicated in 1923. Named for Joe Tinker, many other Baseball Hall of Famers played here, including Jackie Robinson, Rod Carew, Bert Blyleven, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Harmon Killebrew. The pitcher’s mound was where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his only speech in Central Florida, “Integration Now,” less than a month before his death in 1964. In 2015, the historic baseball diamond and field were landmarked by the Orlando City Council.



Wells’built Hotel

In 1926, Dr. Wells constructed a hotel that provided lodging to African Americans during segregation when hotel rooms were not available to them in other areas. Famous guests include Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Justice Thurgood Marshall. The Wells’Built Museum of African American History is now located here, featuring memorabilia, artifacts, and a guest room with authentic furnishings of the 1930s. The building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2000.