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Charting the path of Delray history

By Leon Fooksman
Staff Writer

October 18, 2003

DELRAY BEACH + The creator of downtown's newest tourist destination -- a walking tour of white and black institutions -- has struggled for months to decide how much black history to include.

Glenn Weiss personally wants to make sure the Delray Beach Cultural Loop includes information about the city's past segregationist policies such as the unsuccessful attempt to de-annex black neighborhoods in the 1950s, allegedly to discourage blacks from using the beach, and the city selling a municipal golf course to a private foundation to prevent blacks from playing there.

"I don't want to open old wounds, but at the same time you have to tell the whole story," he said. "We'll end up insulting someone. I'm sure of that."

In a city with past racial tensions, Weiss feels a need to walk a fine line as he gathers information and questions the official version of the city's history.

Among more than 45 sites and events that Weiss and a group of volunteers are considering featuring along the 1.3-mile, publicly funded walking tour are the opening of a former train depot, the founding of prominent churches and the creation of the city tennis stadium. The selected history doesn't shy away from the sensitive times in black history, such as the flooding of the Frog Alley community and the prohibition of blacks crossing Swinton Avenue into white neighborhoods at night.

Weiss' central conflict is whether to go even deeper in describing the low points in black history.

"I'm not so interested in who had the 1956 Chevy or the Hula Hoop. But I guess that's history too. I shouldn't ignore that. But it's not the moments that changed the world," said Weiss.

Past inequities

City leaders said the organizers of the Cultural Loop shouldn't shy away from highlighting the city's past racial inequalities, since that could be a tool for talking about the incidents and working toward erasing pent-up racial tensions. But they stress that the information should be accurate, balanced and relevant to the tour meant to showcase the lives of blacks, whites and immigrants living near downtown.

"So much of history is subjective," said Marjorie Ferrer, director of the city's Joint Venture, which helps promote the downtown. "I look at history as fact, that on this day this happened and on that day that happened."

Joe Gillie, executive director of Old School Square, doesn't believe the tour should be shocking to visitors.

"This walk needs to be interesting and fun for everyone," said Gillie, whose site is featured on the Cultural Loop.

As the Nov. 22 opening of the tour draws closer, Weiss already has seen just how touchy the selection of history can be.

Weiss produced a rough outline of key historical events to help himself write the Cultural Loop visitor's brochure. He said the list was his personal notes and concedes it contained inaccuracies, overgeneralizations and a heavy concentration of black-related topics, such as the opening of the first black school and black leaders' milestones.

One thing he calls a mistake: sharing the list with volunteers working on the project. Somehow, the list also made its way to City Hall and other organizations.

That caused a stir among city officials who were concerned information on the Cultural Loop would be wrong and could potentially hurt the effort.

The Cultural Loop has received $54,000 in federal, state and county money for salaries and hiring artists to create outdoor art along the route. Weiss, a specialist in public arts who is a former project manager of Pineapple Grove Main Street in Delray Beach, is expected to earn $5,000 for his work. A North Carolina native, he came to work in Delray Beach about two years ago after running a public-arts program in Broward County and a county in Washington.

As Weiss researched the history along the Cultural Loop, he said he came to realize a lot of the official city history is written from a white perspective. He noticed that in some of the city publications a lot more information could be added about black-run businesses and black pioneers. For instance, in a booklet for downtown merchants, one of the city's white founders, William Linton, is mentioned numerous times while Fagan Henry, a black pioneer, isn't mentioned at all, Weiss said.

Weiss said he wants to clarify and showcase black history, not to ignite racial hostilities but to acknowledge an important part of the past.

A racial divide has run through Delray Beach for decades.

Some frustrated black residents say city officials overlooked their communities in favor of the mostly-white downtown and beachfront. Homeowners groups have claimed that the city didn't always reach out to the black community when making decisions that affects it. The Haitian community has decried its lack of representation in city government.

City changes

City commissioners responded in the past decade by putting minorities on city boards and repairing crumbling streets, installing lights and building sidewalks in black neighborhoods.

"What's great about this city is that we're working on it," Mayor Jeff Perlman said. "This is confronted in living rooms and public meetings. We've got a long way to go, but at least we're working on it."

Knowing that, Weiss has tried to avoid further controversy with his project. He has met with black and white city historians to agree on the facts and content for the Cultural Loop guide.

"He shouldn't do it on his own. He's a newcomer," said Jayne King, who is helping organize the Cultural Loop. "This is a very sensitive issue. You need to get everything together."

Outsider's view

Weiss and some volunteers have prepared a five-page draft of the key historical events for the tour, making sure to intertwine the black and white history. Most of the items mentioned are documented from books and a historical organization and from interviews with older residents, Weiss said.

As much as he wants to add information about the past city efforts to keep blacks from the beach and the municipal golf course, Weiss said he probably will not include it. He said the golf course isn't close enough to the Cultural Loop to be a part of it and the beach issue is too complicated to explain in a couple of sentences.

"I'm an outsider and I'm seeing particular things. Maybe I'm not saying the history in the right community language, but my heart is in the right place," Weiss said. "There's truths about the history of race relations in Delray Beach, and the community hasn't come to a consensus on how to tell those stories. In 50 years, it will be nothing. Then, there will be a consensus. But, as I said, I'm just an outsider and I'm telling those stories without a consensus."

Leon Fooksman can be reached at lfooksman@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6647.

Copyright Ā 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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