Florida Finds: Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center

Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center founder and CEO, Vivian Filer, center, with supporters real estate agent and former Mayor Jean Chalmers, left, and community activist, architect and former University of Florida professor Kim Tanzer.
Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center founder and CEO, Vivian Filer, center, with supporters real estate agent and former Mayor Jean Chalmers, left, and community activist, architect and former University of Florida professor Kim Tanzer.
Courtesy of CCMCC

The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center (CCMCC) has a special offering for Black History Month this year — a look back at the words of writer Zora Neale Hurston. It’s the perfect kind of event for an organization that is all about celebrating the achievements of African Americans in Gainesville and beyond.

CCMCC founder and CEO Vivian Filer said the Cotton Club is collaborating with the Delta Sigma Zeta chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority to sponsor “An Afternoon with Zora” on Feb. 25.

Filer said the setting at one of the shotgun houses behind the main building is perfect.

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“It’s on the back porch and you know Zora as a writer did a lot of her work outside,” she said.

Remembering Zora is just one of the many activities the Cotton Club sponsors in fulfillment of a dream that has been long in the making. Most activities focus on social justice issues and icons in the African American community.

The Friends of Susan B. Anthony will hold their celebration of the suffragist’s role in the women’s rights movement at the Cotton Club on Feb. 18. In honor of Black History Month, the group will feature a performance of African American spirituals by an a cappella choir.

The main building of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center in the Springhill neighborhood.
Courtesy of CCMCC The main building of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center in the Springhill neighborhood.

Also on display now is an exhibit, “In the Shadows of Plantations: Enslaved Africans in Alachua County” that looks at the lives of enslaved people who were brought here by white planter families between the 1820s and 1850s. 

The main building, which houses the museum and cultural center, has stood on the property for decades, along with a grocery store and four shotgun houses. But it is only in recent years that what people in Gainesville still call the Cotton Club has begun to thrive again.

Filer said the project came to life at the instigation of Rev. Thema Shaw Young, pastor at her Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Gainesville’s Springhill neighborhood.

“She wanted us to look at the land and look at the houses that were there and the store and the huge building that had been formerly used as a club,” Filer said. “She said to me, ‘Sister Filer, I want you to see what you can do about saving this building.’ That’s how I got started.”

The church purchased the 1.8-acre site at 837 SE 7th Avenue in east Gainesville in 1995. The first phase of reconstruction began in 2005 with grants provided from state and local funders as well as in-kind services offered by local contractors like Perry Roofing.

An exhibit of Gullee Geechee crafts at the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center.
Courtesy of CCMCC An exhibit of Gullee Geechee crafts at the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center.

“It pretty much took over my life,” Filer said. “The interest was great as we struggled along. A feasibility study took a while, but in 2003, we got our first grant that allowed us to get started on the building itself,” Filer said.

The main building that became the Cotton Club was built by U.S. soldiers at Camp Blanding in Starke between 1940-1941, Filer said. In 1946, the building was put up for sale. William and Eunice Perryman made a successful bid to purchase it and moved it to a lot near the grocery store they owned.

“We are a historic building. It was built by the soldiers in World War II. So, we have that piece of history. And it was a theater, so we have that piece of history,” Filer said. “That means a lot to us because our soldiers built it with their own hands.”

Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center founder and CEO Vivian File outside the center.
Courtesy of CCMCC Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center founder and CEO Vivian File outside the center.

It functioned for a few years as a movie theater but then was transformed into a “big bands club” and in 1951 took the name of The Cotton Club after the famous Cotton Club in New York City’s Harlem. Some of those who performed there on what was known as the “Chit’lin Circuit” included James Brown, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Brook Benton and Bo Diddley.

The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center was incorporated as a separate entity from Mt. Olive in 2007 when the church awarded the group a 99-year lease for the Cotton Club site.

In November 2018, the restoration of the Cotton Club building was officially marked with a ribbon cutting ceremony, followed by a grand opening gala in February 2019.

Now the main building that was referred to as the hall is a museum that displays African American history and cultural artifacts as well as serving as a large-scale performance and event space. The activity in and around the CCMCC is also helping to revitalize the African American neighborhood. That building is the centerpiece of the complex and there is still much to be done.

The plan is to restore the Perryman Store and make it a coffee house/gathering place featuring African American food and drink and restore the remaining shotgun houses, Filer said.

People inside and outside of the neighborhood are loving what the CCMCC is doing.

“To my community it has brought a great deal of pride. Everyone is just so overwhelmed with gratitude,” Filer said. “They are just so forthcoming with praise. They come in and envelope it. They look out for us, and they will tell us if a door is left open.

“I tell people in the community that I want you to feel a sense of ownership. This museum belongs to you. It is about your heritage, and it is about who you are. I want you when you talk about it to talk about it as if it belongs to you.”

But Filer is quick to emphasize that this sense of ownership goes beyond the immediate African American neighborhood where the CCMCC is located.

“The broader community owns it as well. It is a one-of-a-kind icon in Gainesville,” she said.

The CCMCC is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The building housing what was the Perryman Grocery store on the grounds of the CCMCC. The organization hopes to revive and renovate the building and turn it into a coffee house and gathering place.
Courtesy of CCMCC The building housing what was the Perryman Grocery store on the grounds of the CCMCC. The organization hopes to revive and renovate the building and turn it into a coffee house and gathering place.
A restored shotgun house on the grounds of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center.
Courtesy of CCMCC A restored shotgun house on the grounds of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center.

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