At the recent opening of the Destination Sistrunk Welcome Center on Sistrunk Boulevard, local actor and playwright Darius J. Manuel’s rich, soaring voice filled the performance space with his moving score that chronicled the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., infused with King’s own words.
With one foot in the past, and one in the present, this special moment perfectly captured the ethos behind Destination Sistrunk—the new cultural and heritage tourism program celebrating Broward County’s black community. Piloted by Broward County’s Cultural Division, Destination Sistrunk aims “to serve as the gateway to black culture and heritage in Broward County for residents and visitors alike” explains program director Grace Kewl-Durfey. “We want to redefine the relationship between arts, culture, heritage and tourism to elevate our historically black neighborhoods.”
It’s apt the program’s name honors its Sistrunk location of Broward County’s oldest black neighborhood, that was named after medical pioneer Dr. James Sistrunk, who opened Fort Lauderdale’s first medical facility for African-Americans, the Provident Hospital. In segregated Broward County during the 1940s and 1950s, the community was a bustling business district and music hub, where legends like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway regularly performed.
By the 1970s, however, rapid road development fractured the neighborhood’s commercial and cultural core. Many venues like its Victory Theater cinema and Windsor Music Club were lost to history and to the creatives that called these treasured places home.
Sistrunk’s lost landmarks are just one part of the long campaign for restoring and preserving black spaces for future generations that lies at the heart of today’s gentrification debate in Broward County. Destination Sistrunk aims to unite these efforts by bolstering the African-American monuments that have endured, while nurturing more cultural production in these communities. “The program is all about bringing these assets together to begin identifying ways we all can collaborate,” explains Kewl-Durfey.
This process begins at The Circuit—the Welcome Center’s events and performance space. Scheduled to launch in December, The Circuit will highlight innovative cultural projects created by local artists and partnerships with popular community events like the New Starz Talent Festival showcase with Florida Children’s Theatre and the Sistrunk Historical Festival—a family-friendly celebration featuring a parade, concert and street market. “These events will be open to the general public, and to residents in particular,” says Kewl-Durfey. “We want to have a place that residents can go that reflects the vitality of their own neighborhoods.”
Entrepreneurship will be key to securing sustainability, so Destination Sistrunk will administer professional support for local creatives, partnering with initiatives like SongFest Broward, a music industry development workshop, and the annual 48 Hour Film Project, where local filmmakers compete to create a short movie in two days. The Welcome Center will also offer a coworking space for individual entrepreneurs, as well as open studio space for black artists seeking to engage in the area’s growing FATVillage Art District nearby.
“With attractions like the FATVillage Art Walk, this just provides another fantastic opportunity to see everything in a dedicated space,” explains Jodi Turner, a member of the Destination Sistrunk Advisory Council who is the founder and curator of Las Olas Capital Arts. Ensuring local black artists have access to such platforms is crucial as the art district continues to expand, as “we don’t want to lose our historical perspective and understanding of how the city has grown up and changed.”
The program is equally invested in promoting historical tourism through its Black Heritage Network—a collection of Broward County’s most significant African-American historical sites. Such attractions range from Mount Hermon African Methodist Episcopal (Fort Lauderdale’s third oldest church), to Ali Cultural Arts Center in Pompano Beach—an entertainment venue celebrating African-American arts. Residents and visitors can go to the Center’s information office for guidance through these sites, with cultural tours available on a limited basis.
The project’s upcoming digital portal, DestinationSistrunk.com, will also guide visitors through these attractions. “It’s a way to provide marketing support to black heritage sites in Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach, West Park, Miramar, Lauderhill, and Dania Beach, and get more tourists to those locations.” explains Kewl-Durfey.
These heritage sites remain vulnerable without meaningful research into their cultural significance. This proved true for the Woodlawn Cemetery—the only remaining segregation-era African-American cemetery in Fort Lauderdale. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery dates back 100 years. Among those buried there are veterans of both World Wars and Reuben Stacey, the tragic victim of the county’s last mob lynching attack in 1935. Its registry status came too late to keep the cemetery intact, as land was bought off over the years for development. In 2015, state authorities discovered a number of graves were paved over during construction of I-95.
It’s these tragic losses that inspired the program’s oral history project, led by Dr. Nadine Hankerson. This task is a personal one for her as a Sistrunk native. “I spent a lot of time outside this community, but I came home because it was so important to give back, and make sure that the community is a part of this process that has long been waited for.”
Backed by a team of volunteers, the oral history program will collect elders’ accounts from black communities across Broward County, rescuing lost stories about sites like the Woodlawn Cemetery and the famed Pride of Fort Lauderdale Elks Lodge No. 652, a social, cultural and civic hub serving the community since 1932. The project also plans to develop an archive of artifacts from residents, tangibly capturing a living past for posterity. This process will “require us to create trust with the community,” notes Hankerson. “We want people to say we’re giving you this because we want this history to last for a lifetime.”
Destination Sistrunk will “capture what’s black in Broward County through a 21st century lens,” says Dr. Hankerson. “This is a way for us to say, we were here, we are here still, and we are valued. And I hope that the value of what we’re doing here will last long after we’re gone.”
The Destination Sistrunk Welcome Center will continue to be a beacon for the community during this time. You can check on any updates through their website at http://destinationsistrunk.com/.