A piece of history from Bartow will be included in the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
The museum recently acquired a foundation stone bearing the initials of builder L.B. Brown, a former slave who built scores of homes during Bartow's early years. Museum officials see Brown as an example of the often overlooked contributions to America's growth by pioneering African Americans.
Turn of the century Bartow was a boom town, and Brown saw opportunity arising from the flood of people, black and white, that poured into the town. He built homes, silvered mirrors, sold Bibles, and had a thriving rental property business.
What sets L.B. Brown apart from other successful African Americans of that era is what Clifton Lewis calls Brown's "living testimony." Lewis is the driving force behind the restoration of Brown's family home.
"There's just so much that's still available," Lewis says. "Not only the house and the stone pillar, but we have some of his papers, his handwritten notes, that are a testimony to what he achieved."
Lewis and other community volunteers were able to rescue Brown's 1892 home from the wrecking ball, and now it's open to the public as a museum. The intricate woodwork and charm of the Victorian gingerbread house are still on display, as are some of Brown's personal possessions.
His family Bible, a book of etiquette, and his book on Florida law and banking regulations can be viewed in the sitting room. The concrete foundation stone, which is heading to the Smithsonian, is from another of his scores of rental houses.
Lewis says that he hopes that Brown's life story will set an example for today's youth.
"Brown didn't let that [slavery] hold him back. He never went to school a day in his life, yet he became very literate and his life served as an inspiration ... Especially for our young people, who have so many benefits that they are allowing to get away form them."
Lewis says that the L.B. Brown House hopes to augment the work of local history centers by telling the African American story of central Florida. The next step, he says, is to obtain funding to bring in an educator that will teach L.B. Brown's story to area schoolchildren.
Meanwhile, Brown's foundation stone, along with his story, will be included in the inaugural exhibit of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open in winter 2015.