Many voices, one story: Boca Grande History Museum collaborates with Blanchard House of Punta Gorda

October 22, 2021
By T Michele Walker

Jim Blaha knows that to tell a story, you need many voices. To tell the story of black history in Boca Grande, Jim reached out to the Blanchard House in Punta Gorda.

“The Blanchard House had been closed for a time because of the pandemic. When they had their grand reopening on September 18th, those of us that work and volunteer here at the Boca Grande History Center were invited as guests to attend. We were invited because we had made a concerted effort to create a partnership with other facilities that are like our history center.”

Jim and the team at the Boca Grande History Center had extended an invitation to the executive director of the Blanchard House, Martha Bireda, and her son to view their collection and archives relating to black history. “They were duly impressed,” said Blaha.

Uncovering Black history in Boca Grande has not been easy. “There are many gaps in the timeline, and we are trying to fill in those gaps of the history of the black residency on the island.”

Blanchard House wasn’t the only organization that was contacted. “About a year ago, I had made contact or attempted to make contact with various black history organizations in Charlotte County and Lake County,” explained Blaha. “I was only partially successful. Our new executive director, Crystal Diff, at that time was program coordinator for Charlotte County Libraries and History. We had hired her previously as a consultant for our archives; she brought the two of us together.”

Putting the pieces of history together takes top-notch detective skills. “We’re trying to work on the links between Punta Gorda where there’s a phosphate-related link and other links between Gasparilla Island and Punta Gorda. We’re hoping that by working with organizations such as the Blanchard House, we will be able to fill some of the gaps.”

The Blanchard House, located in Punta Gorda, is a unique museum dedicated to the preservation and study of artifacts related to the culture of Blacks, especially those who lived in Charlotte County. The museum is housed in a small home originally built for Joseph Blanchard and his wife, Minnie.

It is an understatement to say that Black history in Florida is complex. Eatonville, Florida is the oldest black-incorporated municipality in the United States. Incorporated in 1887, it is the first town successfully established by African American freedmen. The founding of this town stands as an enormous achievement for once-enslaved black men and women throughout the United States.

On the other hand, we have Rosewood, Florida, site of the infamous Rosewood massacre. This was a racially motivated massacre of black people and the destruction of a black town that took place during in January 1923 in rural Levy County, Florida.

“You look at a community like Punta Gorda for example,” said Blaha. “About half of the city’s founders of Punta Gorda were black. Four black people signed the papers incorporating the city.”

The complexities extend to black history in Boca Grande, where at one time there were three different black areas of residency, and at one time, one-third of the Boca Grande residential book consisted of black residents.

The Boca Grande History Center is dedicated to preserving and telling the story. “We have a new mini-exhibit, and we have some oral histories of former black residents. We have created five data collection notebooks. Two of them focus on a collection of his oral history transcripts, magazine, newspaper articles, anything to do with black history in Boca Grande, and they’re very extensive.”

Through their extensive research through the United States Federal Census, the Boca Grande History Center was able to identify approximately 475 black residents that at some point had a residency at Boca Grande.

Time is of the essence in this research. “They’re getting fewer in numbers,” said Blaha. “Many of the blacks, when the port shut down, lost their jobs and they left the island. We are trying our best to make contacts because there are some gaps in the history.”

The collaboration continues, as Martha Bireda will be one of the speakers at the Boca Grande Community Center on February 17. The topic will be “The Town That Unity Built,” relating to Punta Gorda and the surrounding areas.

Preserving black history and including all voices in the telling of our story, is vital. “Boca Grande’s history and the Gasparilla Island history is so unique. One of the reasons it is unique is because of the social diversity that characterized life on the island before the building of the bridges and causeways. The black residency was an important part of that diversity.”