May 1, 2024

Pensacola Lighthouse Shines light on African American history

Pondering all that has happened to illuminate the long-ago contributions of African Americans at the Pensacola Lighthouse, Jon Hill literally stands at the beginning of a new path — Hart’s Hammock and Archaeological Park.

“When complete, it will be an interpretative trail featuring prominent African Americans from a maritime perspective, from about 1866-1920,” said Hill, executive director of the Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum aboard Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Thanks to Impact 100 and Florida Department of State/Florida Division of Historical Resources funding, the project, now several years in the works, includes reforesting to create a natural park, a storytelling circle, and the recreation of the Hart Homestead — a two-room house with an attached kitchen, chicken coops and productive orchards “that will look like the Harts still live there,” Hill said.

A June grand opening is being planned.

Hill said while the archaeological park will serve as an outdoor exhibit that interprets the life, legacy and contributions of Charles Hart and others with similar stories, it is a momentous “opportunity for the Pensacola Lighthouse museum to reflect the diversity of this community more accurately in the interpretation of the site, and to present a much-needed, fresh perspective on the history of the lighthouse and its surrounding area.”

The project has spurred similar endeavors at lighthouses across the United States, Hill said. “We are all talking, finding and telling these stories,” he said.

Standing outside the Hart Homestead site, Hill said, “I have a passion for all history, particularly about a story that has not been told and should be told, a story that tells how we went from an integrated society to Jim Crow. This is an empty page in our history book.”

A University of West Florida graduate who studied archaeology and history, Hill explained how this part of Pensacola’s African American history was excavated.

According to information provided by Hill, recent excavations on the lighthouse grounds uncovered the possible mid-19th century homestead of Charles Hart, an African American enslaved laborer who helped construct many facilities aboard the Navy Yard – including the lighthouse. Using oral histories from Hart’s descendants, especially his 93-year-old granddaughter Marlene Thomas of Pensacola, historical documentation and new archaeological data, the Hart story came to life.

With the 177-step, historic Pensacola Lighthouse built in 1859 towering behind him, Hill scans his place of employment since 2008.

He said the nonprofit stays alive via grants, state monies, tour income, a staff of 15, 60-plus volunteers and abundant teamwork. He credits the museum research team and the late president emeritus Dick Callaway for seeing Hart’s Hammock and Archaeological Park come to fruition.

“This project has been a group effort all the way around,” Hill said.

Clockwise from left: The Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. There will be an exhibit with a path winding through that highlights notable African American leaders in 19th and 20th century Pensacola. The porch of the new museum is based on photographs of the original along with excavation of the footprint of the original building. There is a story circle where groups will come to hear about the history of this exhibit and the lighthouse.