After I had a general overview of the Orlando areas history in the Orange County Regional History Center, I wanted to dive a little deeper into the Orlando areas social history and Wells Built Museum of African American History and Culture, which will give me a deeper look on Orlandos African American history.
To this day, this area west of I-4 is predominantly inhabited by African Americans, and the difference in housing and facilities between this area and the center is quite remarkable. In fact, the very name of Division Street points to a distinct historical demarcation between black and white residential areas.
The origin of the Wells Built Museum goes back to a prominent local African doctor named Dr. William Monroe Wells, who started building Wells Built Hotel 1926 to accommodate African Americans during a segregation era when housing was not available to them in other parts of Central Florida.
Next to the Wells Built door was once South Street Casino, a performance hall, which featured musicians who traveled the Chitlin Circuit that performs the audience across the country. The hotel opened with three shops on the first floor and hotel rooms on the second floor.
Dr. William Monroe Wells was one of Orlandos first black doctors and came to the area in 1917. Born in Ft. Gaines, Georgia, 1889, concluded Dr. Wellss medical education at Meharry Medical College. During a part of World War II, Dr. William Monroe Wells is the only African American doctor in Orlando.
During segregation, white doctors did not treat African-American patients. African American doctors therefore earned their money from people in their own race. He worked very hard to serve the growing African American population in Orlando. With the help of his assistant, Mrs. Josie Belle Jackson, Dr. Wells is famous for delivering over 5,000 children in Orlando.
He treated patients suffering from pneumonia, flu, scarlet fever and other serious illnesses before introducing drugs such as penicillin. Many of Dr. Wells patients were extremely poor. He treated his illnesses but many times he could not afford to pay his fee. This enabled them to speak strongly against bad conditions that existed in African American society without fear of losing their supply.
Although African Americans were taxpayers like other Orlando residents, they did not have access to recreational facilities, good schools, police protection, healthcare and other services provided to white citizens. This led him to build South Street Casino and the hotel next door.
Dr Wells booked bands and other big names entertainers to perform at South Street Casino. Many famous artists we know today played at South Street Casino within the Chitlin Circuit. Some examples of these artists are:
Ray Charles, B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Guitar Slim and Bo Diddley
African Americans came from all over the world to Orlando to trade and record performances of popular musicians at South Street Casino. After the performances at the casino, the artists were inspected at the historic Wells Built Hotel. In its feast, the Wells Building built accommodation for customers like Pegleg Bates, Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Campenella, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson. The entertainers and athletes who visited this facility made it one of the most popular places for African Americans in the South.
Today the museum has over 6,000 square meters of display space. It retains the original hotels façade, a guest room with authentic furniture, beads and decorations from the 1930s, and also features an original décor that reflects important architectural elements and unique designs during the period. The exhibits collected for viewing are: official hotel documents, an original Negro League baseball shirt, photographs, artifacts, books, multimedia presentations, slave items and other historical meanings.
Dr. Wells has moved to the casino and will be restored and opened to the public. Wells Built Museum of African American Culture and History is located just west of I-4 near Church Street at 511 West South Street, Orlando 32801, tel. (407) 245-7535.