Pearl City is only two blocks from the art museum in Boca Raton, Florida, encompassing 3 streets: Pearl, Ruby and Sapphire. It is a historically Black community founded in 1915, a decade before Boca Raton was incorporated. Boca Raton Museum of Art commissioned acclaimed photographer Reginald Cunningham to photograph Pearl City residents and their community to help preserve their stories. Neighborhoods like Pearl City always seem to be under threat from developers as they move to grow urban sprawl. Knowing about these neighborhoods and preserving them physically or even if only through stories and images are important to understanding our collective history. The museum also invited Dr. Candace Cunningham (no relation), Assistant Professor of History at the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, Florida Atlantic University to write an essay about the history of Pearl City. The newly opened Black Pearls exhibition featuring Pearl City at the museum by Mr. Cunningham, takes you through one of the many journeys of what it takes to be truly a part of the Great American Dream, property ownership.
Featured image: Pearl City Historical District by Reginald Cunningham (2022).
During a conversation prior to the show’s opening, Mr. Cunningham and Dr. Candace Cunningham discussed the project and their approach to preserving the community’s history. Mr. Cunningham spoke of how photography has been a way to tell the truth by capturing events as they happen. One example he mentioned was during the Civil Rights era with the public seeing children being blasted by firehoses that in turn helped to change the course of history. Using the ability to bring these types of experiences into the public consciousness as part of his charge especially as a Black photographer, Mr. Cunningham captured not only the history of the community but also the accomplishment of intergenerational ownership and wealth. For Dr. Cunningham it was important to collect the narratives of the residents and property owners so they would not be lost. Their personal connection to Pearl City is one of the things that has helped to keep the community intact where many others did not, having a tangible link to the past. All of these oral histories will be stored not only in the Museum but also in the Boca Raton Historical Society. She will also make them available to all the participants and their families. Dr. Cunningham stressed that we should all secure our past by speaking to and recording family elders to preserve their experiences. We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, knowing the past helps us to better appreciate our journey in life.
The Past is The Future
In the tradition of photographers like Gordon Parks, Mr. Cunningham trains his lens on Pearl City residents and owners capturing their pride as property owners and as Black people with long stakes in the community. There is a sense of determination in their faces, one that resists the community from being dissolved into surrounding areas. Many have indeed said they would never sell, keeping the future of Pearl City and hopefully many others like it legacies to admire and emulate in future generations.
Reginald Cunningham: Black Pearls, Boca Raton Museum of Art, runs through January 22, 2023.