This vacation hotspot might be best known for its sugar-white beaches and turquoise water, but its postcard beauty belies a rich and diverse history. In the last 460 years, Pensacola has come under the sway of five different flags — Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American. Each wave of occupation brought new immigrants to Pensacola’s shores — all of whom contributed to the city’s cultural and ethnic milieu. Among the waves of settlers, soldiers and immigrants were many of African descent, who have helped define modern-day Pensacola.
Read along to find all the places to honor and celebrate black history in the Pensacola Bay Area.
The historically black neighborhood came to prominence during the early 20th century, when segregation and mounting racial tension pushed the city’s black residents out of the city center. The neighborhood, clustered around the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets, became a thriving commercial hub. It was also a prominent stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit — a network of mostly black-owned entertainment venues that sprung to life during segregation and nurtured the careers of some of the biggest names in American music.
In 2019, the area was named a spot on the historic Mississippi Blues Trail. The marker recognizes the works of those in the neighborhood dedicated to fostering the growth and appreciation of the Blues including Gussie Streeter of Gussie’s Record Shop and Abe Pierce Sr., of Abe’s 506 and Savoy Ballroom. Today, there are over 200 markers throughout the southeast that promote the understanding of blues history.
Today, travelers can take a trip back in time while enjoying the Belmont Murals in the area along with delicious fares from black-owned businesses including Blue Dot and the Dwarf Chicken Stand.
Underground Railroad Sites: Pensacola Pass & Fort Barrancas
In 2021, two sites in Pensacola were named to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom is a federal program that commemorates the stories of the men and women who risked everything for freedom and those who helped them. It honors, preserves, and promotes the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight worldwide.
In the mid-1800s, Pensacola Pass formed part of a transportation route for freedom seekers sailing on the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers sailed to destinations like the Bahamas, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire to gain freedom.
Fort Barrancas Area, commonly called the Barrancas during the Civil War, became a destination for freedom seekers in 1863. At the Barrancas, the Union maintained a military post—which included the Spanish Water Battery, Fort Barrancas and Advanced Redoubt—for recruiting, training and staging white and Black soldiers. Some freedom seekers became soldiers in the United States Colored Troops, playing an important role in the fight to restore the Union and destroy slavery.
Pensacola Lunch Counter Sit-Ins
The Pensacola Lunch Counter Sit-Ins led to the integration of downtown cafes. From 1960 to 1962, protestors conducted sit-ins at downtown Pensacola department store lunch counters, demanding the restaurants be integrated. The events are commemorated in a historical marker located on Palafox Place near Garden Street in downtown Pensacola, outside the former site of Woolworth’s department store.
“Confronted by hecklers, they (the protestors) were physically and verbally harassed and even arrested on falsified charges,” according to the marker. As a result of the sit-ins, and an accompanying boycott of downtown businesses, the lunch counters were finally integrated on March 12, 1962.
Julee Panton House in Historic Pensacola Village
Julee Panton was a free black woman who owned a home in downtown Pensacola in the early 1800s, during the slavery era. Historians write that she acquired her simple, wood-framed house, built-in 1805, for $300.
Panton operated her own business selling candles and pastries, but she is also believed to have helped many slaves to escape to freedom. Her home is now called Julee Cottage and is part of Historic Pensacola Village, a complex of historic homes and buildings in downtown operated by the University of West Florida Historic Trust.
Patton’s cottage, now on E. Zaragoza St., is the only surviving Pensacola home reminiscent of the urban Creole architecture of the French Quarter in New Orleans. It now houses an exhibit on black history in West Florida.
General Daniel “Chappie” James Museum & Flight Academy
Daniel “Chappie” James was born in Pensacola in 1920, during the height of the Jim Crow era. His mother, Lillie James, ran a private school for black children out of her home in Pensacola’s Eastside neighborhood. From an early age, James knew the value of hard work and education — values that would serve him well later in life.
James went on to become one of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen” during World War II, and later, the nation’s first black four-star general. Today, a memorial plaza stands on the site of James’ childhood home — along with the original concrete stoop, emblazoned with the words, “Chappie’s first steps.” The memorial is a palpable reminder of the strength and perseverance of Pensacola’s black community — even in the face of overwhelming odds.
In 2018, James’s childhood home, located at 1608 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in downtown Pensacola, was opened as General Daniel "Chappie" James Museum and Flight Academy.
Johnson Beach – Army Pvt. Rosamond Johnson, Jr.
Army Pvt. Rosamond Johnson Jr. was only 15 years old when he enlisted in the army and only 17 years old when he saved two soldiers in battle during the Korean War on July 26, 1950. While attempting to save a third, Johnson was killed, marking him as the first black soldier and first resident of Escambia County to be killed in the Korean War.
At the time of his death, most Pensacola Bay Area beaches were not open to blacks except for one in Perdido Key. The beach was accordingly renamed in his honor and remains to this day a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Middle Passage of Pensacola/African Presence in Colonial Pensacola Marker
Located at the end of Plaza de Luna on Palafox Street, the marker commemorates Pensacola as a Middle Passage port during the largest forced migration in history and the role it played in the transportation of 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas.
More closely, the historical marker highlights the significant African presence in colonial Pensacola where the “influence and contributions of African children, women, men and their descendants in creating our nation and this region began,” the marker reads.
As documented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Slave Trade Route Project, 2 million enslaved Africans died during the journey and 500,000 were delivered directly to the North American mainland.
Pensacola is one of 28 documented sites of memory for slave arrivals in the United States and the upbringing of this historical marker was recognized through the nonprofit Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project.
Today, as in the past, travelers have the opportunity to learn and participate in black history that has had a profound influence on the Pensacola Bay Area and its culture. We hope you enjoy learning about Pensacola's past.