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Belmont DeVilliers Heritage Festival celebrates the past and future of historic Black neighborhood

Belmont DeVilliers Neighborhood Association
Back on the Blocks festival in Belmont-DeVilliers in 1975.

The Belmont-DeVilliers Neighborhood Association wants to preserve the community’s cultural heritage, while also embracing its evolution.

This weekend, they’re hosting an inaugural festival that celebrates the historic African-American neighborhood.

“Actually, we’re piggy-backing on top of a lot of efforts that happened in years past to just make sure we keep the stories alive, that we preserve the heritage and the culture that was here,” said Wendy Bennett, association member and festival chair.

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“We want everyone to know that, yes, it’s changing, but at the same time it’s important to remember what was.”

Bennett and her husband Rod, now in their 70s, are representative of the old and the new of the neighborhood.

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Wendy Bennett (center) with her husband, Rod, (right), and Rev. John Powell (left).

“I lived right down, we were on A and Cervantes,” she said, recalling the home where she grew up. “There was an old Gulf service station on the corner and my grandma was right next to it and my aunt was next to her.”

“My great-grandmother lived here,” said Rod Bennett of the old home that his great-grandmother once owned on Belmont Street, just feet from the iconic corner at DeVilliers. “She’d sit out on the stoop in the evening and watch the traffic, people coming by, walking, and going to different places.”

On Wednesday, Bennett, and other members of the neighborhood association were sitting in the living room of the new modern home that he and his wife, Wendy, have built on the family property. They moved in in August.

“It’s a big change, going from a wood-frame house to a brick structure with all the amenities,” he said, acknowledging that it means a lot to him to be back.

New to the community is Peter Connelly, who moved to Pensacola with his wife from upstate New York.

“Well, first of all, we wanted a neighborhood with walkability and availability to go to restaurants and stores, and we found this neighborhood filled those needs,” said Connelly, who built a house on Belmont Street, next door to the Bennett’s.

“We had all kinds of people stopping by and saying hello and welcome to the neighborhood.”

Among those who’ve welcomed the Connelly’s into the community and regaled about its history is Eddie Todd, head of the Belmont-DeVilliers Neighborhood Association.

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Peter Connelly talks about moving to the Belmont DeVilliers neighborhood.

Now 69 years old, Todd recalled a time when people looked out for each other in the neighborhood, which was really a city in a city, the center of Black culture and commerce.

“You had your lawyers, your doctors, your funeral homes and the list goes on,” he said. “And, one of the things, that professionally, I like is we’re trying to make sure that history is captured and documented so that others can get a pride from it and hear the stories about the love and the experience they had growing up.”

Educating the youth of the community about the history of the community and its residents is also important to John Powell, who not only lived in the historic Belmont-DeVilliers Neighborhood but worked there, too.

“I came to work at Benboe’s Funeral Home, Capp Benboe, his wife Inez — they took me in like a son,” he recalled. “I went in every day and visited almost every other day with Ms. Gussie, the record shop on the corner there that’s now Five Sisters (Café). But, I remember when it was Gussie’s Record Shop. It’s where you bought all your Black records, all your jazz, all your gospel. Anything that came out new, Ms. Gussie had it.”

The original WBOP radio station, which went on air in the 1950s, was housed above the store.

Powell is doing his part to try to preserve some of the neighborhood’s history, as the owner of Smith’s Bakery, which engulfed the neighborhood with the smell of fresh bread from the 1920s to 1990. It’s now on the Florida Trust’s 2022 11 to Save list.

One of the people most knowledgeable of the overall history of the Belmont-DeVilliers community is neighborhood association member and documentarian Robin Reshard. She says noted African-American businessman and civic leader John Sunday was instrumental in establishing the historic black business district more than 150 years ago.

“The first of property we saw that John Sunday bought was in 1869,” said Reshard. “So, what we now know as Southern Oaks was the Magnolias and as Rev. Powell said it was houses before that.”

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Robin Reshard

And, according to Reshard, the history and the stories are still unfolding. In 2019, the historic neighborhood was named part of the famous Mississippi Blues Trail.

And, just this month, the sale of Beno & Al’s Barber Shop on West Belmont Street yielded new artifacts such as an original Northwest Florida Barber’s Association card from Effie Harvey, referred to as Lady Barber, an old insurance company book stamped with the Belmont & DeVilliers address on it. Reshard and Powell were able to acquire the original barber chairs from the shop.

For the festival, Reshard is putting together a “History Walk” of photos that will highlight the neighborhood through the decades.

Acknowledging the changing face of the community and their effort to be inclusive, she says the focus will be on the Black history.

“And, so all we want to do is say, ‘Hey, this is our history.’ And, just like you’re proud of your Jewish history, you’re proud of your Italian history, your New York history, we’re proud of this history that this culture brought,” she proclaimed. “And, it’s important because it’s added to the fabric.”

For the event, noted Belmont-DeVilliers restaurants, Five Sisters Restaurant, Dwarf Cafe, Blue Dot, and Cottage Cafe will be open for business, along with popular local food truck vendors.

And, there will be a music stage, featuring the Glen Parker Band, Jones and Company, Antoine Knight, and others.

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media

On the whole, Todd says this first annual Belmont-DeVilliers Heritage Festival will be modeled after the old block parties hosted by WBOP, which was located there.

“There are photos showing the radio station would go and get an ice cream trailer or snow cone trailer and put it out. And, Morgan (Robert “Cooker” Morgan) would get on the radio station and invite all the kids to come down and it would be a dance party right out here on the streets.”

They’ll carry on with the neighborhood tradition Saturday from 1-7 p.m. For more information about the event, click here.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.