By Dakota Parks for Downtown Crowd
How do we decide whose stories are recorded or written in history books? For a long time, the answer has been—power. Those in positions of power had control of which stories and lives were remembered. When Emjay Williams went in for a job shadow at the University of West Florida Historic Trust, almost four years ago, they were asked to choose a research topic to pull from the collection. Out of curiosity, they chose LGBT history and were met with all but empty hands and a small, dusty folder labeled “alternative lifestyles.” This interaction sparked a need to not only uncover the untold history of the queer community in Northwest Florida, but also for the Historic Trust to update its archival collections to represent wider demographics at large. The Historic Trust’s exhibit “Queering Spaces: Celebrating Pensacola’s LGBTQ+ Community” opens May 1 at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Museum and will remain on display through June 2022.
“We define ‘queering’ as growing spaces to become open and welcoming to the queer community that maybe weren’t accepting to begin with. We want the queer community to be included in the histories of more places than just those built for the community itself,” Community Curator Emjay Williams said. “I think this work will have a huge impact on how the younger and future generations are treated and supported in their identities.” Williams has been working on this project to collect local queer history for the last four years and even relocated from Orlando to coordinate, collect and make connections with members of the community.
The dates of the historical exhibit will sandwich LGBTQ+ Pride Month celebrated annually in June each year to mark the illustrious Stonewall Riots of 1969 that sparked the movement for LGBTQ+ rights in America. Locally, however, the exhibit situates itself within the history of the Emma Jones Society and the infamous Pensacola Beach Pride Weekend held annually at the end of May on Memorial Day weekend.
“The story of pride on Pensacola Beach dates back to when men were still being persecuted and arrested for being homosexual,” Williams explained. “These two adopted brothers, Ray and Henry Hillyer decided to open a PO box in 1957 in the name of Emma Jones to have their male magazines and books sent to. At this time, the post office was actually informing police of people that were receiving illicit mail. The Hillyers formed the Emma Jones Society, letting other men use this PO box, and would get together for parties on Fourth of July at the San Carlos Hotel downtown Pensacola to go through the mail. These parties ended in 1975 but eventually led to what we know as pride on Memorial Day Weekend.”
As the exhibit works through the history of the Emma Jones Society, it will also display artifacts collected from the community like a stage of glimmering drag queen dresses that marks the history of drag in Pensacola. Other artifacts include a display case of shirts from the Stamped LGBTQ+ Film Festivals, a stamped dollar bill used to mark and count gay money and a copy of Jerry T. Watkins book Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism, which was instrumental in documenting queer history in Florida. One wall of the exhibit will be dedicated to defining words like “gender” and “sexuality,” and includes postcards which mirror those definitions that guests can take home with them. Another wall showcases video news clippings, documents and a QR code that links to all of the local LGBTQ+ organizations in Pensacola.
“The overall space is really designed to make it feel like a celebration,” Jessie Cragg, curator of exhibits for the Historic Trust, said. “But it’s also for everyone, regardless of who you are, to be able to get a better understanding of the history of the queer community in Northwest Florida. One of my hopes is that when people visit this exhibit, they'll realize that the queer community has always been here. This is a story that we've needed to tell for a very long time, and it's great to be a part of restoring this visibility.”
One artifact that community curators were excited to track down represents a turning point in LGBTQ+ visibility. As Williams and Cragg explained, the tradition of stamping money with pink triangles or stamps that read “gay money” began in California when members of the queer community realized that their money was providing a lot of economic power, yet they were still being discriminated against. They began stamping money to keep track of the amount of money being exchanged, and this tradition spread to other cities. According to their research, in 1994 alone, an estimated $18.7 million was spent by LGBTQ tourists in Pensacola on Memorial Day weekend.
Within the exhibit, guests will also be able to navigate another digital exhibit that is based out of San Francisco called the AIDS Memorial Quilt presented through the National Aids Memorial. This digitized quilt stretches across more than 48,000 panels and represents the lives and stories of more than 105,000 people that have died from AIDS in the United States. The purpose of this memorial is to educate and fight against stigma, denial and hate, for a just future for the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to influence the stories that are being told, because I feel like in most museums, the stories are always similar,” Cragg explained. “History is usually told and written about old white men that do important things. I’m drawn to history for these untold stories that bring light to sections of humanity that most people don’t ever get the chance to understand or learn about.”
Part of uncovering this community history means that the cataloguing and preserving of local queer history can’t stop after the exhibit. The Historic Trust has recently applied for a grant through the local nonprofit Sunday’s Child to spearhead its extended project “Queering the Archive,” which will allow the Trust to continue to update and expand the holdings and stories within its archival collection. This project will build off the momentum of the original exhibit and continue to collect photos, documents, artifacts and record oral histories of community members to build the archive for future researchers and generations to come.
“It’s not just about the exhibit—it's about making this space available for everyone for the future. Once this exhibit comes down, we want to keep this material here and have the stories recorded and archived for researchers and members of the community to come and explore. The mission of the Trust is to collect and preserve the history of all members of Northwest Florida that would otherwise be lost and forgotten. As society progresses, archives need to reflect that growth and change.”
As Cragg explained, the Historic Trust is dedicated to completing this long-term project to update and build the archive, regardless of whether or not it receives grant funding to hire research assistants and purchase new audio equipment. The “Queering the Archive” project will officially kick off in October 2021 with community curators beginning the stages of outreach to the local queer community and organizations. Expanding this project will also allow the Trust to build partnerships with regional organizations like the Invisible History Project, which is currently collecting Southern LGBTQ+ history within the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.
The “Queering Spaces: Celebrating Pensacola’s LGBTQ+ Community” exhibit will be on display at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Museum, through June 2022 and is currently open on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm.