How We Started Our Home Journey Restoration
This post is the first in a series that chronicles the restoration of The Historic Thomas House. You can read the entire series here.
Mom, Your House Is Famous!
The power of nostalgia can make you pick up and relocate your family 3,000 miles away. Fueled by an outlandish idea, childhood memories, and unwavering family support, I decided to turn my baby blog into a budding business. I even have the perfect place picked out: my childhood home. And I know that a lot of people think the places they grew up are special, but mine really is special and sort of famous.
At first glance, it looks like a dingy and neglected house left to rot in plain sight. It appears unloved and abandoned, as if the family quickly packed up and moved way. No notice or sign left behind of where they went or why they fled. If you are unfamiliar with the town or the residents, you would just expect the house to be demolished at some point. But that would be farthest from the truth. 550 East Kennedy Boulevard is a source of pride in a town built on the backs of prideful people. The address locally known as the Historic Thomas House sits just within the town city limits of Eatonville, FL.
You've heard of Eatonville. The home of Zora Neale Hurston and football player Ha'Sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix. You know the stories (and the controversies) of the first town to gain incorporation by ex-slaves during the reconstruction era, the first “all-black” town. And what's the story of this strange house that no one lives in but still stands? Well, this is the oldest building in the town, OLDER than the city incorporation by 6 years. Records show it was built as the town's first house of worship: St. Lawrence A&E Church. In 1908, it was moved across the street and turned into the town's first library. It didn't become a single family home until 1946 when Stenson Thomas, or S.T as they called him, bought it from the town. He came to be the town sheriff and my great-grandfather. So although it doesn't look like in right now, this house is immensely loved.
Leaving LA for Eatonville
My kids only ever knew Los Angeles so the move wasn't easy. We've all had to make some sacrifices for my goals. We are currently living in a house filled with three generations of people squished in together like a closed accordion. This is not my childhood home, but we came back here because it is where my extended family is living. I lived here, in this home, in college but I've spent a lot more time here in the past six months than I ever did in the two years before I left for LA. Now my kids get the benefit of playing in a backyard that was the size of my old LA apartment, but we all know this is temporary until our own new home is built. I use to think that I could just inherit my childhood home and raise my children there, like my mother and grandmother did. But due to some unforeseen circumstances, I will never have the chance to live there again.
The Thomas House sits on the main road in Eatonville but that road has a commercial designation. My house is older than that ordinance and of course, labeled residential. But the town also decided that any property left unoccupied on the main street for longer than six months would automatically convert to commercial and that is why I can't live in my childhood home. Never to back down from a challenge, my family and I have been talking a lot over the past few years of what to do with the house. Some of the options have been a museum, a bed and breakfast, a general store, a grocery store, and my favorite, a bookstore.
I've dreamed of opening up a bookstore since I was in college. It's something ever bookish person thinks about but only a few jump at the opportunity. You can image my surprise when my husband declared the Thomas House to be a perfect spot for a bookstore and natural extension of my Black & Bookish site. Where else could you put a small, independent bookstore filled with the diversity of the African Diaspora if not in the oldest building of the oldest black town in the U.S.? The house is unmovable but we were not. We packed up our things in December of 2016 after eight years of LA living.
We are building A space.
A space for reading, lounging, and good, good food. A space for local art events like poetry readings, book clubs, and rap battles. A space to take in the stories of this house and this town because they are important stories to tell. We are working to breathe new life into a piece of history and through these HOME JOURNEY updates, you'll be able to follow our progress. Many people talk about home restoration, but no one is creating a bookstore/cafe/museum from their own childhood home.
I'm going to be completely honest with you and tell you I've never built a house or run a bookstore or blogged about anything for longer than a year. I know this is a massive challenge and there are a lot of moving parts to restore a hundred-and-thirty-year-old building. So we're all on this train together, learning and growing in tandem because this project is too important not to complete. This building and this town are special in a way that the world should hear about it and be able to experience it. Next will be to find an architect and speak to a specialist who knows historic preservation. I'm also attending town meetings and being more present in the day-to-day life of Eatonville. This will be where my kids grow up, just like I did.
I came home to make something old new again. To rebuild in a place that is unique and timeless. You see, I always knew this house was magical, I just didn't know that I was too.
If you would like to help, please use the contact form below. We are also taking donations through Go Fund Me.