On the corner of Meridian and Jefferson Streets, at 419 E. Jefferson Street in Tallahassee, Florida is the John G. Riley Center & Museum. The two-story, vernacular, wood-framed house, located at the foot of a hill in the downtown area was home to John G. Riley. Its mission, according to its website is “to discover, archive and illuminate the blended interrelationship of African American, Native American and European history and preserve African American landmarks and legacies throughout the State of Florida as an enduring public resource through tourism and education.”
Born into slavery in 1857, John Gilmore Riley was fortunate to become formally learned by attending public and private academic institutions. He became an educator, first working in Wakulla County. He moved to work at The Lincoln Academy, which was later known as Lincoln High School. There, he taught (1881-1892) and then was promoted to lead as its principal until his retirement (1892-1926). The academy was one of only three Freedmen schools in Florida to provide secondary education to African-Americans who had been enslaved and to their descendants.
Riley also was actively involved with African-American fraternal organizations and entrepreneurship. He served as the Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Florida and bought property to be used for various purposes. On the website for the center and museum, it stated, “Riley was among the few African Americans in Tallahassee to own property at the turn of the century. He acquired seven major downtown parcels of land, among them including the property on which he built his home, the site of the Department of Natural Resource and Bryant Building and the parking lot of the Florida State University Law School. The Riley House remains as a legacy of the African American middle class that emerged during his lifetime.”
Constructed circa 1890, the John G. Riley Home, also known as “The Riley House”, was built near the Black community of Smokey Hollow that once existed in Tallahassee, the capitol city of Florida. His house represents the final remnant of the burgeoning Black middle class at the close of the nineteenth century. Because of its cultural and historic significance, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The home also symbolizes the intelligence, industry and commitment of John G. Riley especially considering his beginnings. Emphasizing this sentiment are the words declared on the center’s website, “More than a historical landmark, the house is a noble witness to progress and the ability of its owner to succeed despite the odds …There was no dramatic transfer by will; neither did it come with a trust account or other means to help sustain operations or address perpetual needs of maintenance and security.”
The John G. Riley Home remained in his family until 1970. Essentially abandoned, the house fell into decline and the City of Tallahassee sought to demolish it to establish an electric substation. However, when citizens, especially African-Americans whose life had been directly impacted by Riley, learned of these plans, they formed the John Gilmore Riley Foundation and worked to cease the City’s efforts.
Althemese Barnes, the Founding Director Emeritus of the John G. Riley Center & Museum attested to his impact on the website, affirming, “Many of the locals involved studied under Professor Riley at the old Lincoln High School where he served as principal for 33 years. Countless others had rented from him in the historic Black community of Smokey Hollow, located in what is now downtown Tallahassee or worshipped at St. James C.M.E. (Colored Methodist Episcopal) Church, of which Riley was a considered a ‘pillar’ church organizer. Across the state, he had inducted others into the Masonic Order during his tenure as Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Florida and some knew of his work with Booker T. Washington and the NAACP advocating equality and justice for African Americans and protesting illegal lynching throughout the South.”
They were successful and rehabilitation occurred over the next several years. This was made possible by numerous individuals and organizations including the Florida NAACP and The City Department of Community Improvement. The reconstruction was completed in 1982 and the Foundation purchased the building in 1983.
The Riley House became the John G. Riley Center & Museum in 1996, centering upon African-American history and culture. Among its features are exhibits, conferences, workshops and even an animatronic figure of John G. Riley that was donated by Disney. Its programming is designed, as per its website, to “encourage and empower participants to develop an awareness of and gain an appreciation for the educational and social contributions of African-Americans to Florida’s history.” Their outreach includes after-school programs, Spring Break and Summer camps and even a unit that is based upon a Civil War re-enactment.
The John G. Riley Center & Museum is crucial as a historic representation of successful African-American leadership in Tallahassee. A site on the Florida Black Heritage Trail, the center and museum are open Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It may be opened for special purposes with approved reservations. Guided tours are available for schools, groups and individuals and self-guided tours may occur during its standard hours of operation.
As the John G. Riley Center & Museum continues to educate, enlighten and engage, it is the ultimate hope that the work and importance of Black culture is preserved and also accessible to the public. As Barnes championed, “I often tell young people that the generation before me saved the home from demolition, while my generation established the museum and its programmatic thrust, but it is now up to the next generation to step-up and do their part to preserve the legacy that the last two generations helped to protect. It is the revelation of this extraordinary journey, and a refusal to allow my sixteen year labor-of-love to be in vain, that I committed to selecting and mentoring the next generation of historians, museum directors, scholars and preservationists … The time is right for the third generation to take the helm of this movement and assist not only Riley Museum, but to serve other such landmarks across the state and country.”