For Black History Month, WINK News looks into McCollum Hall’s past and hopeful future to see how the space is preserving a slice of Southwest Florida’s history.
Merely say “McCollum Hall,” or even just “McCollum,” and a whole world is conjured for those who know its rich past.
“We painted the mural completely to recognize that we understand the hardships, but there was still a lot of happiness on this piece of property,” said Shari Shifrin, director of the Fort Myers Mural Society. “There was that velvet rope down the middle of the dance floor, and nobody cared. Everybody was like, ‘Move that rope. It’s in our way.’ So it was very interracial events.”
“Do you know I grew up next door to Ms. Mccollum? Yes, I did. The McCollums were my neighbors,” said Marian Smallwood, who used to visit McCollum Hall in her youth. “We used to have little teenage dances there because that was long after the great performers had been in there. They used to tell me about it, and I used to say, ‘I wish I could’ve been there to see them.’”
Those great performers were titans of 20th-century music like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. But a glance at the murals next to the hall proves that as great as they were, they weren’t what made McCollum Hall great.
”A lot of people don’t know any of the history on this wall and realize how much it mattered in the development of the community and how important Fort Myers was in the stop sequence for entertainment in the 40s,” Shifrin said. “During the Jim Crow era, when transportation and entertainment for the black community was sort of boxed in.”
The hall, built in 1938, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the days of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, though, it was also a place in the “green book.”
“Entertainers would need a place to stop and refuel, and Fort Myers happened to be one of those stops,” Shifrin said. “They actually had a gas station, as represented in the mural, that would give Black people gas when so many other gas stations said ‘whites only.’”
McCollum Hall has sat empty for the last 10 years, but the developer Goshen + Cornerstone LLC plans on changing that. The plans include developing a 26-unit multi-family community and over 14,000 square feet of commercial retail space.
“You know, I’ll say one thing that we are conscious of is the magnitude of this project because those that are involved look like us,” said Leonard Burke with Goshen + Cornerstone LLC.
Burke and Miles Alexander III plan on bringing life back to the property, a kind of life that resembles the one it had before.
“We can come together, we can eat, we can watch a game, we can sit outside, we can talk, no matter what anybody’s background is,” Alexander said. “All those entertainers, all those artists that played there, keeping that spirit going—have fun, family, and laughter.”
Some people in Dunbar and greater Lee County are unsure if that life will be close enough. They fear the community McCollum Hall was once made for won’t have it much longer.
“I think, in a perfect world, we would like McCollum Hall to have been restored to its original glory,” Shifrin said. “Maybe put the soda shop back inside and the liquor store back inside. I think it’s controversial as far as what the future of the property is.”
But for people like Marian Smallwood and Charles Barnes, chairman of the Lee County Black History Society, there are high hopes for the restoration.
“There’s a lot of excitement about that project getting started and hopefully getting finished,” Barnes said.
“McCollum Hall… Oh, goodness, they’re getting ready to make it,” Smallwood said. “Oh boy.”
They’re just happy the building that is engrained in the cultural lives of generations of Black people in Dunbar and across the county is still standing.