The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center will serve to assist all people in understanding the African American experience, with an emphasis on North Central Florida and the Springhill neighborhood in East Gainesville. As a repository of this experience, the museum affirms the following purposes:
- To be a living cultural institution which presents the African American experience to the greater community
- To be an instrument of education by offering programs, workshops, lectures and other educational services that increase the community’s awareness of the African American experience
- To be a museum of history which seeks to preserve and tell the story of the contributions of the African American community to American life
- To be a museum of art that encourages, fosters, and promotes visual art forms and artists that enhance the life of African Americans and the general community
History of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center Project
The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, Inc. (CCMCC) is a 50l(c)(3) non-proﬁt corporation that has been established to preserve the historic Cotton Club building and develop a cultural center and museum on the site. The project includes the development of a much needed venue for the display of African American history and cultural artifacts, and the building of a large-scale performance space in East Gainesville, all within an environmentally friendly green space.
Founding of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center CCMCC) Project
Under the leadership of Rev. Thelma Shaw Young, Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church purchased the Cotton Club site in 1995. In 1997 the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center (CCMCC) Board was organized and given the charge to save the buildings and develop the property. The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, Inc. was incorporated as a separate, independent business from Mt. Olive in 2005. In 2007, the CCMCC was awarded 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status. The group’s mission is to restore the six buildings on the site and incorporate them into a museum and cultural center that preserves and highlights African American history and culture in a way that contributes to the economic growth and development of the community it serves.
The Cotton Club site consists of the Cotton Club/Blue Note (often referred to as the Hall), the Perryman Grocery Store, and four shot-gun houses. All of the buildings are on the 1950 Sanborn Map in their current locations. The CCMCC project aims to restore for adaptive use all six buildings, creating a heritage tourism destination that will provide a glimpse of African American life during the period of racial segregation in the United States.
Preserving the Cotton Club building, along with the Perryman Store and the four shotgun houses that share the 1.6 acre site, will ensure that future generations never forget the historic richness and legacy of a time and place that impacted and enriched the lives of an entire nation of people.
Plans for the site, which have been developed in collaboration with Santa Fe College and the University of Florida’s Powell Center for Construction and Environment in the Rinker School of Building Construction, will utilize all of the structures on the site. The Cotton Club building will house a museum and serve as a large-scale performance space. The Perryman store is designated to become a café and mini museum with a farmer’s market for local growers. In addition to the existing structures, an additional building has been constructed to house the necessary support facilities such as restrooms.
The first phase of the restoration project, which began in 2005, focused on the stabilization of the Cotton Club building.
The Cotton Club building was constructed as a wood frame building and remains so today. It is a two story facility that will seat 300 occupants in auditorium style seating on the main floor. The second floor of the building houses the concrete room (walls, floor, ceiling, and door).
The building originally had a tin roof and period (1940s) windows and doors. However, its condition deteriorated over the years. At the time it was purchased by the church it was literally caving in and derelict, with holes in the roof and walls and a crumbling foundation. When restoration began, the building had to be almost totally rebuilt in order to stabilize it. This meant repairing the foundation in addition to installing a new roof (metal) along new siding, windows, and doors. Except for some interior walls and "floor and truss components,” the building is completely new. Some components of the exterior, such as the roof, siding and windows, could not be precisely matched to the original component appearance because the originals no longer exist in the market. The windows were completely destroyed and/or missing and although the best effort was made to replace them with modern versions that are as faithful as possible to a building of Cotton Club’s era, they are not the same.
Phase II (current phase) has as its focus the completion of the interior of the Cotton Club building, installation of the electrical system and mechanical systems such as the heating and air conditioning system, sprinkler system, and plumbing. In addition, it includes the interior finishes and insulation, and the completion of the site plan, which includes parking, paving, drainage, and landscaping.
Once completed, the Cotton Club building will be an important community asset that offers cultural arts programming and services, including theater performances and concerts, for audiences of up to 300 people and a venue for other activities such as banquets, weddings, and family reunions. It will also serve as a museum to preserve African American History through the collection and display of historical artifacts and art of all media.
Although the Cotton Club building may not receive historic preservation designation because of the many components that could not be restored to period authenticity, it remains a building of integrity and community pride.
Phase III will focus on the restoration of the Perryman store and the shotgun houses. The exact use of these buildings has not been determined.
History of the Cotton Club Building
The wood frame structure that became the Cotton Club in Gainesville, Florida was built by U. S. soldiers between 1940 -1941 as a Post Exchange (PX) at Camp Blanding in Starke, Florida north of Gainesville. In March of 1946, at the end of World War II, the building was placed on sale, along with several others. William and Eunice Perryman, who owned a grocery store on what was then called the East Depot Avenue or Cecil Avenue (now SE 7th Ave) in Gainesville’s Springhill community made a successful bid for one of the PX buildings. They moved it, in several pieces, down the Waldo Road to a lot near their store.
The building was opened for the first time in its new location as the Perry Theater. At that time a cement projection room was installed in the north end of the building, which was a requirement for buildings that housed flammable film for theatre use. According to Gainesville City Directories, the Perry Theater was in operation during 1948 and 1949. In keeping with the segregation laws of the period, the Perry Theater was opened to serve the African Americans only. The theater only survived a short time because during that era African Americans in Gainesville also patronized the all Black Lincoln and Rose theaters on what was then known as Seminary Lane (NW 5th Avenue).
Shortly after the close of the Perry Theater, the building became the site for what was then called a “big bands’ club” operated by Sarah McKnight. Charles and Sarah McKnight named the club after the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, which was experiencing its most successful years. The Gainesville Cotton Club is listed in the 1951-1952 city directory as a place where beverages were sold. As the club gained popularity, it hosted performances by African American performers as they worked the Chit’lin Circuit, many of whom are now hailed nationally and internationally for their musical contributions to the world. The McKnights, who ran the Cotton Club, revealed that African American entertainers who appeared at the Cotton Club and went on to attain national fame included James Brown, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Brook Benton, and Bo Diddley. Unfortunately, the City of Gainesville refused to renew the club’s liquor license and the “lively run” of the Cotton Club came to an end.
The Cotton Club building continued to serve as an entertainment venue between 1953 and 1959. During that time, it was described as a ballroom and was named the Blue Note Club. With a jukebox for entertainment and beer as its primary alcoholic beverage, the Blue Note Club never attained the popularity of the Cotton Club but it provided many evenings of entertainment.
When the Blue Note Club closed in the late 1950s, the building was purchased by Kenneth Gibbs and used as a warehouse for the Babcock Furniture Company until 1970, after which it remained vacant. In 1995, the Cotton Club building, along with the other five structures on the 1.6 acre site, was sold to Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal, which sits on the Southwest corner of the Cotton Club site at 730 Southeast 8th Street.
The original Cotton Club site held nine structures. The six that remain standing at this time include the large building, known as the Cotton Club, a small wooden grocery store with signage on the building that names it as the Perryman Grocery Store, and four “shotgun” houses. Two of the shotgun houses face SE 8th Street, adjacent to the church, while the store is on the corner of SE 8th Street and SE 7th Avenue. The remaining two shotgun houses are on SE 9th Street behind the Cotton Club building.
The structures on the Cotton Club site are significant in their portrayal of life during the period of segregation of the races in America’s history. They give presence to an era in African American history which is disappearing without being recorded. It was a time during which most newspapers carried very little, if any, news about Black people. The local Gainesville newspaper was no exception. A small section of the newspaper was given to an African American columnist, Mr. Childs, who reported obituaries, usually of the more prominent Blacks. When space allowed, Mr. Childs reported news items of events in the community. Vivian Filer remembers being in the paper in 1955 because she won a $0.25 pack of notebook paper for her skills on the dance floor. Her dancing partner was the son of the family that owned the Dunbar Hotel, the only Black hotel in Gainesville. Many of the accomplishments of African Americans were left untold, especially that of the largest segment of the African American community, the struggling, hardworking segment.
The Cotton Club, site with its historic significance, illustrates the close proximity in which people worked, shopped, played, and worshipped. The buildings, with their weathered siding and hurricane damaged roofs, in this small community, are easily overlooked, however, doing so would be a tragic mistake.
Timeline of Ownership
1941 – 1946: Camp Blanding, Florida National Guard
1948 – 1949: Perry Theater, William and Eunice Perryman
1951 – 1952: Cotton Club, Charles and Sarah McKnight
1953 – 1959: The Blue Note Club, Charles and Sarah McKnight
1960 – 1970: Babcock Furniture Company, Kenneth Gibbs
1995 – Present: Mt. Olive AME Church and Cotton Club Museum & Cultural Center Board
The Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network (FAAHPN) is a professional association organized in 2001 by the John Gilmore Riley Center Museum.
FAAHPN serves as an informational and technical assistance resource in response to a growing interest in preserving Florida’s African American culture, that of the African Diaspora and that of other related ethnically diverse historic resources globally.