Bartow’s L.B. Brown House
By Meredith Jean Morris
Perseverance, ingenuity and hard work — these are qualities many people would aspire to have on the resume of their character. And, it was with these qualities that Lawrence Bernard (L.B.) Brown, born in the last decade of slavery, started a rich and lasting heritage in Bartow.
The L.B. Brown House, circa 1892, occupies a large, grassy lot at 470 L.B. Brown Ave. With a sweeping wraparound porch and gingerbread detailing, the verdant house is reminiscent of a bygone era. However, while the house is the primary artifact in the L.B. Brown Museum, it isn’t just the house that fills neighborhood residents with intense pride — it’s Brown’s story.
City commissioner, and former Bartow mayor, James F. Clements, serves on the L.B. Brown House board as the city’s representative.
“As the commission liaison, I was able to study and learn more about the Brown House and L.B. Brown, the man,” Clements says. “Mr. Brown, a former slave, moved to Bartow with very little and was able in his lifetime to become a leading African American citizen and entrepreneur in the community. A self-taught master carpenter, Mr. Brown built his house himself and it is an amazing fact that it still stands over 125 years later.”
The L.B. Brown House is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and may be the only one of its kind in Florida, still in existence, that was built and owned by a former slave. Acquired by the Neighborhood Improvement Corporation in 1999, the house was restored over a period of two to three years.
“Thankfully a few members of the community recognized the value of the Brown House many years ago and set forth an effort to raise funds for a complete restoration of the house, and it has become a treasure for our community,” Clements says. “The community is blessed and privileged that Mr. Brown chose to settle here and very fortunate that others had the foresight to recognize the value of his home and property and saw to it that it was restored and preserved for generations to come to explore, enjoy and learn from.”
Free guided tours are offered on most days at the house with advance reservation, and throughout the years, the house has seen its share of local and international visitors.
“We’ve had a lot of foreign visitors — from the (United Kingdom), all over,” says Clifton Lewis, the caretaker of the L.B. Brown House. “People are always surprised by what they learn here. We had a Japanese visitor tell us ‘We had never heard that black folks did anything.’ And, we want people to know that L.B. Brown did not walk on water, and there are many other accomplished black men, but he was representative of Bartow, Polk County, and Florida itself. Really a quintessential Floridian.”
Lewis says he thinks the house offers more than a history lesson – it opens lines of discussion.
“I’m 73 years old, a son of the south, and I’ve seen the progress we’ve made across ethnic and racial lines,” Lewis says. “The L.B. Brown House lets people come together and embrace history. It forces them to talk about the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and those are typically not topics people like to discuss freely. But, when they come to the Brown House, they can discuss them in an easier way.”
Gloria McCoy began learning about the history of the Brown House when she was a sixth-grade student at Union Academy. Lavinia Brown Thomas, L.B. Brown’s daughter, was McCoy’s teacher.
“Mr. Brown’s daughter was living in the house at the time, and I was a regular visitor there,” says McCoy, who is the current board chairwoman of the Neighborhood Improvement Corporation. “We were fascinated by the house and Brown’s history. He was such a genius. He made canes and had watches. We would go to the house and she would show us all his things. She loved her dad.”
Thomas died in the late 1980s, and after that time the Brown House became dilapidated, but McCoy says she has fond memories of visiting the house prior to its decline.
“It was set up on tree stumps, and we would crawl up under the house. As kids, we were awfully curious,” she says. “We called it the treehouse, or the house that grew out of trees. There was another tree in the backyard, and we used to water it and water it and water it, hoping another house would grow out of it. I think we watered it until it died.”
McCoy says she hopes the L.B. Brown House continues to be a place of knowledge for all of Bartow.
“It’s not just Black history, but it’s history,” she says. “Not only Brown’s history, but Bartow’s history. I hope it will continue to be a shining light for that history in this community.”
The 16th annual L.B. Brown Heritage Festival will be held February 12-14, 2016. The festival features an annual luncheon and block party, celebrating the heritage of African Americans in Florida. Vendors will include a variety of entertainment, food, crafts and clothing. For more info about the house or festival visit LBBrown.com.