Pearl City: An unexpected historic Black community

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  • Published on September 23, 2022
  • Last Updated March 10, 2023
  • In History

Discover Boca Raton's little-known piece of African American history, Pearl City, a historically Black community established in 1915.

When you think of Boca Raton, Florida, it’s easy to envision an affluent retirement community where silver-haired, 1970s-era celebrities like Gabe Kaplan, aka Mr. Kotter in the eponymous sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, performs stand-up for the over-65 crowd. And really, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I actually attended said comedy show with my mother, a long-retired Dominican woman, at Century Village in Boca Raton, where she lives. Still, if that’s your only impression of Boca, you may want to look more closely during your next visit.

Lost in thought recently as I drove through Boca, I missed a turn and found myself in a residential neighborhood and, with Martin Luther King Memorial off to my left, proceeded into a Black historic neighborhood known as Pearl City. I would later learn that Pearl City is a historically Black neighborhood, the oldest community in Boca Raton, in fact, predating the city’s incorporation. Established when all of Boca was countryside and woods, one of Pearl City’s co-founders was Alex Hughes, who built his home there in 1914. He later helped to establish the first school in Pearl City by making his request for one to the Board of Public Instruction in West Palm Beach. He was told that if he could get eight children as students they would send a teacher. He did just that, thus helping to establish the Roadman Elementary School in 1923.

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Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Boca Raton, Florida. Wikimedia Commons

Most of Pearl City’s original inhabitants were sharecroppers and farm laborers who had left other southern states like Georgia and South Carolina seeking economic opportunity. The men often fished and hunted rabbits, quails, possums and sea turtles, plentiful in the area at the time, to supplement food for their families. From the late 1920s through the 1940s, The Boca Hotel and Club, and a U.S. Army air base, brought an array of higher-wage service and military jobs into the area.

Although Pearl City is a small community, comprising a three-block radius, two churches were established there: Macedonia AME and Ebenezer Baptist, and their structures were completed in 1920 and 1921, respectively. As the main social institutions of the community, early Pearl City residents split their time between the two, collectively congregating on the first and third Sundays at Ebenezer Baptist and the second and fourth Sundays at Macedonia AME. Throughout the 20th century, Pearl City remained a close-knit community where people looked out for one another and supported each other through good times and bad.

In the latter part of the 20th century, as Boca Raton began to develop into a vibrant city of over 100,000 people, many boasting significant wealth, Pearl City has been repeatedly eyed for gentrification. All efforts, thus far, have been unsuccessful as Pearl City residents have steadfastly held onto their properties and their neighborhood. In the mid-1980s an oral history project called “Pearl City: An Analysis of the Folk History,” was conducted for the Boca Raton Historical Society and Museum with some of the early members of the community.

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Distinct architecture of Boca Raton, Florida. Wikimedia Commons

In that publication, long-time Pearl City resident, Lois Adolphus Martin, who passed away at the age of 93 earlier this year, had this to say: “They have tried their darndest to get us out of here….They have told us a million times that this is our choice property and for you all to be living on it when you could sell it for commercial and make all this money off of it, but what do we say to them? This is home and it’s choice property for us.”

The document is a fascinating first-hand account of Pearl City life throughout the bulk of the 20th century. A local non-profit known as D.I.S.C. is currently working to have Pearl City designated as a national historic district to further protect it from redevelopment.

This story was created by Detour, a journalism brand focused on the best stories in Black travel, in partnership with McClatchy’s The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. Detour’s approach to travel and storytelling seeks to tell previously under-reported or ignored narratives by shifting away from the customary routes framed in Eurocentrism. The detour team is made up of an A-list of award-winning journalists, writers, historians, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers.