Known as Pearl City, the neighborhood was one of the earliest and longest-lasting African American neighborhoods in the American South. Located in what is now the City of Boca Raton, the community was founded in 1915, ten years before Boca Raton was incorporated.
In an homage to that community, the Boca Raton Museum of Art commissioned Washington, D.C.-based photographer Reginald Cunningham to shoot and document the area south of Glades Road, between Dixie and Federal highways, its former residents and its descendants for a new exhibit titled, “Black Pearls.”
“We want to tell the story of Pearl City through the current residents whose parents and grandparents were the original Pearl City settlers,” says Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “The Pearl City residents are our museum’s closest neighbors, and we want to celebrate our neighbors with this exhibition.”
In addition, the museum worked with Imani Cheers, associate professor of Digital Storytelling in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, Candace Cunningham, assistant professor of History at the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters at Florida Atlantic University and the Boca Raton Historical Society to tell the full history of Pearl City.
The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 22, 2023, featured photographs, audio oral histories and personal mementos passed down through families for generations.
Cunningham, (BePureBlack.com) who came to photography by way of journalism, has had his work appear on the cover of British Vogue, "The Washington Post," "Essence," "HuffPost," and "Ebony," among others. He was first inspired to grab a camera after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
“Being commissioned by the Boca Raton Museum of Art to photograph the residents and cultural emblems of Pearl City one of the South’s most beloved and enduring Black districts is an amazing experience," he says.
To learn about the community and its people, Cunningham met with his subjects and tried to put them at ease. His technique, he says, is to go into a community with “an honest intention, open ears and a shut mouth.”
“I turn on a little music, ask them about themselves,” he says. “We sit and joke and laugh and just kind of talk about some things - even if only for five minutes.”
“I think that helps to bring some of the warmth forward that you see in my photos,” Cunningham says. “They feel very personable and their stories come across in those photographs.”
In addition to shots of the area, including street signs (Pearl, Ruby and Sapphire), the community garden and the long-standing Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, at 200 N.E. 12th St., he captured portraits of Pastors Ronald Brown and Calvin Davis, Anne Blutcher, John Martin, The Anderson Family, Katie Mae, Gladys Bettis, Irene Rufus, Annette Ireland, Marie Hester and Dorothy Overstreet, Barbara Griffin, Eva Cunningham (Griffin) Willie Jenkins and Geraldine and George Spain, among others.
In the exhibit, George Spain remembers the neighborhood fondly, “[It] was known for being a safe, close-knit community where everyone knew one another. That’s one of the things that Pearl City was fond of – neighbor would look after the neighbor. It’s a very close-knit community.”
“Pearl City is a place of peace,” descendant Annette Ireland says. “It’s a sacred place. If you were raised there, it was a place where you could live in peace. You knew everybody. There was a connection. It was a very healthy environment, even though people had their struggles.”
Pearl City began when a land auction was held in an effort to create “a brand-new colored city.” That day, local African Americans purchased 30 lots, according to Candace Cunningham, assistant professor of History at the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters at Florida Atlantic University.
“Those disparities (racial and social) pushed African Americans out of Georgia and the Carolinas and pulled them into South Florida,” she writes in the exhibit’s catalog. “It was by no means the land of opportunity for Blacks, but it did offer more options than they were finding elsewhere.”
In more recent years, efforts have been made to bring the history of Pearl City to light and in 2000, the city’s Historic Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate 5 blocks of Pearl City as a historic district.
And, while many, but not all of the residents may have dispersed, Pearl City lives on in people’s collective memories and now will live on as part of an official commemoration in the collaboration with photographer Cunningham and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
"These works by Reginald Cunningham have now entered the Museum’s collection,” says Lippman. “This is most definitely a project born in the community, which serves to create a record for future generations.”
"Black Pearls" is on exhibit through Jan. 22, 2023 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, FL 33432. Tel: (561) 392-2500 or bocaratonmuseum.org.
Admissions is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors ages 65 and older, students with id, Boca Raton Museum members and children are admitted free. Hours are Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.