After I had received a general overview of the history of the Orlando area in the Orange County Regional History Center, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the social history of the Orlando area, and the Wells Built Museum of African American History and Culture was going to give me a more in-depth look into Orlando’s African American history.
To this day this area west of I-4 is primarily inhabited by African Americans and the difference in housing and facilities between this area and the downtown area is quite notable. As a matter of fact, the very name “Division Street” points to a distinct historical line of demarcation between black and white residential areas.
The origins of the Wells Built Museum date back to a prominent local African physician by the name of Dr. William Monroe Wells who started building the Well’s Built Hotel in 1926 to provide lodging to African Americans during an era of segregation when accommodations were not available to them in other areas of Central Florida.
Next door to the Wells’ Built was once the South Street Casino, a performance hall, which featured musicians that traveled the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ performing for audiences all over the country. The hotel opened with three storefronts on the first floor and hotel rooms on the second floor.
Dr. William Monroe Wells was one of Orlando’s first black physicians and came to the area in 1917. Born in Ft. Gaines, Georgia, in 1889, Dr. Wells completed his medical training at Meharry Medical College. During part of WWII, Dr. William Monroe Wells was the only African American physician in Orlando.
During segregation, white physicians did not treat African American patients. African American doctors, therefore, earned their money from people of 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 known to have delivered over 5,000 babies in Orlando.
He treated patients who suffered from pneumonia, influenza, scarlet fever and other serious illnesses before drugs like penicillin were introduced. Many of Dr. Wells’ patients were extremely poor. He treated their illnesses though they many times could not afford to pay his fee. This allowed them to speak forcefully against poor conditions that existed in the African American community without fear of losing their livelihood.
Although African Americans were taxpayers like other residents of Orlando, they did not have access to recreational facilities, good schools, police protection, health care and other services that were provided to white citizens. This led him to build the South Street Casino and the hotel next door.
Dr. Wells booked bands and other big name entertainers to perform at the South Street Casino. Many famous performers that we know today played at South Street Casino within the Chitlin Circuit. A few examples of these performers are:
– Ray Charles
– B.B. King
– Louis Armstrong
– Guitar Slim
– Bo Diddley
African Americans came from all over the surrounding areas to Orlando to shop and take in performances of popular musicians at the South Street Casino. After the performances at the casino, the artists checked in at the historic Wells’ Built Hotel. In its heyday, the Wells’ Built provided lodging for clientele such as Pegleg Bates, Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Campenella, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson. The entertainers and athletes who frequented this establishment made it one of the most popular venues for African Americans in the South.
Today the museum features over 6,000 square feet of display space. It retains the original hotel facade, a guestroom featuring authentic furniture, beading and decorations of the 1930’s, and also bears an original interior wall reflecting important architectural elements and designs unique to the period. Exhibition material collected for display include: official hotel documents, an original Negro League baseball jersey, photographs, artifacts, books, multi-media exhibits, slave records and other items of historic significance.
Dr. Well’s home has been moved to the site of the Casino and will be restored and opened to the public. The Well’s 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.