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A New Name for Wentworth Museum?

Sandra Averhart/WUWF Public Media

After extensive research by a local historian, it appears that the namesake of the T.T. Wentworth Museum is now known for something other than his massive collection of memoribilia.

“I’ve been researching racially-motivated violence in Pensacola for close to 20 years now; lynchings, the incidents that happened Jay, Florida/northern Santa Rosa County, McDavid, Beulah and so forth,” said historian Tom Garner.

He did the legwork in researching T.T. Wentworth (1898-1989), and found out he was a business owner, Escambia County Commissioner and the county’s tax collector.

And through material obtained by the University of West Florida Historic Trust, Garner also discovered Wentworth was a Ku Klux Klan leader, confirming decades of rumors.

“The Klan was founded here in 1920; T.T. Wentworth was a founding member and the first secretary of the Klan,” said Garner. “In 1925 he was elected Exalted Cyclops – which is the president of the Klan – and then he continued to be exalted cyclops at least until 1928. There’s no more records after 1928.”

Among the artifacts are Wentworth's KKK membership card; a receipt for his Klan robes, and letters from him addressed to the "Grand Dragon, Realm of Florida," all found in the Wentworth family home over a one and a half-year period.

Credit UWF Historical Trust
T.T. Wentworth (1898-1989).

“No air conditioning; we could only spend a couple of hours at time there,” said Rob Overton, executive director of the University of West Florida Historic Trust. “And then the boxes came until we finally got all the paperwork. We knew that in that box as we got through the process of going and doing a rough sort, it was Klan-related material. There were some patches and some books, and we saw a few letters with Klan and some other things.”

Overton says it’s important not to sweep history, good, bad, or indifferent, under the rug.

“History is history and whether we like it or don’t like it, it needs to be shared and it needs to be understood,” Overton said. “We have to look at it through the lens of today; but we also have to put our own view on it and our own morals on those. But it does no good to anyone to keep secrets.”

“T.T. Wentworth’s” days as the museum’s name could be numbered, but there appears to be some legal hoops to jump through before that happens.

“We are investigating how the process might be,” Overton said. “It was named by a governor [in] 1988 -- Bob Martinez – and it’s a state structure. There’s some bureaucracy to go through, and we’ve got to look at the process.”

One of the questions to be answered, says Overton, is whether the Legislature would have to be involved in any name change.

“At this time I don’t know; that may be a possibility but I’m not sure,” said Overton. “When it was [Pensacola] City Hall and the city moved it over it immediately became state property, and there’s various departments within the state that have purview over the naming of buildings. We’re trying right now to narrow down where this actually would go.”

But historian Tom Garner says a name change is not the end-all-be-all. If the story of what it was like to be black in Pensacola historically is not told, he contends, then “we’ve all failed.”

Read Garner's letter to Pensacola City Council

“It’s uncomfortable for us, particularly in the white community; some of it’s ugly, some of it’s brutal,” Garner said. “There’s lynchings, there’s ‘sundown towns’ – [areas where blacks had to be out of by nightfall or risk injury or death] – segregated transportation, segregated housing, lack of access to power and justice. There’s all sorts of issues historically that we all need to look at. But there’s no place, and has not been any place in Pensacola, where we can get that information.” 

Credit UWF
Tom Garner

Among other things — such as the pending relocation of the Confederate monument from Florida Park to another site — one big help, said Garner, would be a museum facility where people can learn the history of Pensacola’s African-American community.

“What it was like to sit in the balcony of the Saenger Theater; to be in a segregated streetcar, to be denied access of going to the same school as white people,” said Garner. “I think it should be in the Wentworth Museum. I think that’s very appropriate, it’s right on the public square. This history needs to be front and center so everybody can see it and access it.”

As far as re-naming the museum, Garner would avoid naming it after anyone in particular.

“You run into trouble when you make monuments, you make statues, or you name buildings [for] specific people,” said Garner. “Because all of us are human beings with human flaws. Those flaws have a tendency to come out when we die.”

Garner prefers putting up historical markers and exhibits to explain what happened and who they were; those can be replaced later if and when some better information is discovered. That way, he says, there’s no obligation to remove a statue or take off a name from a building.