Vivian Washington Filer says that while a spotlight often shines on her, it is the people around her who deserve recognition for the work they do to help preserve history.
Filer is the chair and founder of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center board, a role she takes on with pride along with her efforts in storytelling African American history.
“Vivian Filer is one of those people who is so incredibly valuable to the community, because she does so much more than just promote the preservation of culturally important buildings,” says City of Gainesville Historical Preservation Officer Kathleen Kauffman who, along with the city’s historic preservation board, developed six awards for the inaugural 2022 Historic Preservation Awards.
“She promotes the history of many generations of Gainesville’s residents through storytelling and oral history, often through song.”
That is why Filer, 84, received the Vivian Washington Filer Award from the City of Gainesville during an awards ceremony in May.
“I was shocked when I looked at the program and I thought ‘Vivian Washington Filer Award, what is that?’” Filer said during a recent interview at the Cotton Club Museum building.
The award was established to recognize an individual who has championed the preservation of the unique cultural and physical heritage of Gainesville’s residents and neighborhoods, either through professional or volunteer efforts.
Filer said she called Kauffman over to ask about what she had read and was informed that the award would be established upon Filer being presented with it on May 25 during a ceremony at the Matheson History Museum.
Filer, a retired nurse and 1956 graduate of Lincoln High School, said she leaned on the knowledge of others during the process of refurbishing the Cotton Club building because, “I was a nurse back then. I knew about saving lives, not saving buildings.”
In 1995, Filer’s church purchased the 1.8 acres that the Cotton Club building sits on at 837 SE Seventh Avenue in Gainesville. She helped form a board of directors which wrote a grant proposal for a feasibility study. The state awarded them $5,000 for the study, a first step in the restoration of historic buildings.
“It showed the building was sound enough to be saved,” said Filer who then set up a meeting for city and county officials to come together and help find a way to restore the building and create a cultural center.
A $350,000 grant awarded by the State Historic Preservation division kick-started the project and the board later secured a nearly $500,000 grant earmarked to complete the restoration.
Filer said she remembers a hole in the corner of the building that had a tree growing up it. She joked that the building had to be restored because it was “growing its own lumber.”
She credits the late Dr. Charles Kibert, a professor at the M.E. Rinker School of Construction Management at the University of Florida, for securing the funds for the remodel through grant applications.
In 2018, a ribbon cutting of the restored Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center became a prelude to the center hosting a grand opening ceremony during Black History Month the following year.
The club that had been a go-to venue in the 1950s where music legends such as B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and James Brown played, now still holds performance events but also serves as a museum and host to art exhibits featuring African American culture tributes.
Looking back, Filer said she was too young to see music acts perform at the club. “I graduated in 1956 and was not old enough to attend those concerts,” she said, adding that A. Quinn Jones was her principal and she was part of the last class to graduate from the old Lincoln school building.
When the students were integrated, the African American history she was learning was no longer taught.
She said her biggest life accomplishment is becoming a teller of African American history since age 14. She loves to recite the poetry of the post-slavery era.
She learned to read with expression. “When we came up, we had to take turns reading out loud because there were not enough books in the class for everyone,” she said.
Looking around the museum she mentioned the upcoming exhibit of artifacts from the Gullah Geechee people who she explained are descendants of Africans enslaved on rice, indigo and cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast.
Filer posed for a portrait in front of the artwork crafted by her beloved friend Patricia-Hilliard Nunn who helped local communities and her UF students face the ugly history of racism in Alachua County.
They shared a passion for being active historians, but Hilliard-Nunn passed away in 2020 at the age of 57 after a battle with cancer.
“Patricia was my curator, my sweetheart,” Filer said.
Filer said it was the Gainesville community who made the Cotton Club come to life again.
Neighbors and visitors stepped forward, she said, and she gave credit to the management at Lowe’s home improvement store at Butler Plaza for fulfilling her request to furnish the club’s kitchen. “They sent someone out to look at the space and they made us their Hero Project,” she said.
Lowe’s installed cabinetry and sinks, a local fraternity supplied a refrigerator, and the local Bethel church donated a stove.
“I tell the story all the time,” Filer said about the donations. “It was a kindhearted thing to do.”
And she turns the spotlight away from herself once again and says, “I am receiving the award for everyone who has worked on this project.”
She offers advice to anyone interested in preserving cultural history.
“Just become involved and be aware of factual history and work to get it told,” she says.
“We exist because the people want us here, who patronize us here,” she says about the Cotton Club. “We have a board of directors whose goal is to bring to Gainesville events and history and cultural awareness that we haven’t seen before.
“And we do it in a building that’s unlike any other building in Gainesville.”