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Preston Tillman wants to preserve black history in West Palm Beach, and he wishes more people would help
Preston Tillman wants to preserve black history in West Palm Beach, and he wishes more people would help
Joshua Prezant

Time to Remember

Preston Tillman's large, leathery hands flip through an old photo album. His milky brown eyes pore over grainy images of family and friends: photos that show his dark brown, close-cropped hair long before it turned stark white, photos that show small wooden and stucco houses built in the '20s by black pioneers who settled near Henry Flagler's railroad line in West Palm Beach and worked in his ritzy hotels. Wearing tweed britches and knee socks, a young Tillman is pictured standing before his childhood home, where he, his parents, and his eight siblings would squeeze around a small dining table at mealtime. They were at that table September 16, 1928.

"It was around eight o'clock that night, and we were just getting ready to have supper when a gush of water came into our house," the 84-year-old recalls in a soft, husky voice. "The wind took off the top of our house, and a lot of the shacks were torn down. I remember that our family Bible, where my birth date was listed, got lost that night. And up until I was 65, when I found old census records, I believed I had been born in 1918, not 1916."

While Tillman's family lost many treasures, it survived the fathomless torrent. An estimated 2000 people, including many black migrant farm workers in the Glades near Lake Okeechobee, weren't so lucky. In the weeks following the storm, their decomposing bodies floated alongside the carcasses of dogs and cattle.

Fearful of the spread of disease, the American Red Cross and the military scrambled to bury the bodies. Some of the corpses were burned on large pyres, others were buried in a mass grave in nearby Port Macaya, and still others were brought to Tillman's neighborhood just off Tamarind Avenue at 25th Street.

Like many survivors Tillman was asked to help toss the remains into a huge pit on 1.5 acres of undeveloped land. "We had to wear masks, and they gave us special stuff to wash our hands," he says. "They had fished their bodies out of the water with nets, and they brought them in dump trucks. The bodies were all mutilated, and there was no way you could identify anybody."

Today Tillman, a semiretired real-estate agent, lives in a house only four blocks from his childhood home, which stands on cinder blocks, empty and shotgun-shack narrow, with graffiti on the front door. Just around the block, the mass grave looks unremarkable, a wide-open parcel of fenced land where tall weeds give no clue of what lies beneath. But that may change soon. In December, after more than five years of nudging from grassroots activists, the City of West Palm Beach agreed to spend $180,000 to buy the land from local exterminator Jim Kolkana.

So far no decision has been made about what to do with the property. While a group called the Storm of '28 Coalition, formed in 1992 to draw attention to the gravesite, advocates a memorial, Tillman believes people should know about more than just the storm. He wants the neighborhood's rich history to be preserved and honored. "Everybody has been talking about how to identify the bodies and what type of monument should go there," Tillman says. "They've all been wasting time."

The city has committed millions of dollars to help commercial developments like CityPlace, Tillman points out. He wants to see more public support for his neighborhood, which is blighted like much of black urbania. "What the city needs to remember is that this whole place is historic. If they worked it out right, it could be turned into something where people could come and learn about the culture and history of blacks who built these streets."

In fact Tillman's parents were pioneers. His mother, Laura, was a seamstress and his father, Will, owned one of the area's first service stations. Their work ethic and sense of entrepreneurship inspired Tillman to become the first licensed black Realtor in West Palm Beach in 1962. He says he has sold or resold many of the area's one- and two-bedroom homes, which range from dilapidated to quaint and are, on average, valued at $50,000 to $60,000. Tillman's threadbare pants and scruffy side-zipper boots seem to indicate he hasn't gotten rich off real estate, an idea that draws nothing more than a muffled huff in reply.

In fact Tillman nearly lost his home this past February because family members had borrowed money and not repaid it. After The Palm Beach Post broke the story, philanthropic citizens donated $54,000 to keep his property out of foreclosure.

In the passenger seat of a Buick, Tillman scowls and fiddles with a seat belt while directing a visitor up one narrow street and down the next. He occasionally asks the visitor to stop the car when a memory overtakes him. Pointing to a narrow, vacant lot between two houses, where clothes flutter on a laundry line, Tillman remembers playing kickball in the 1920s. "They used to call this Tin Pan Alley," he recalls, "because of how families had to build the streets by lining them with metal cans."

Two blocks north, crossing railroad tracks that run behind a lumberyard and sheet-metal factories, Tillman enters Evergreen Cemetery, which hotel workers and businessmen established in 1913 for black citizens. "There was no way white folks wanted to be buried alongside us," says Tillman. "But we wanted something else besides Potter's Field, so this was something nice." (West Palm Beach's Potter's Field is a vacant plot of land one street away from the mass grave on Tamarind Avenue.)

At Evergreen, which occupies about two acres, hundreds of oblong slabs of concrete, green with mildew, lie close to one another. Few have carved lettering; fewer still are adorned with flowers. The site is virtually without trees, plants, or anything else that would give it a facelift. "It hasn't been kept up," Tillman says, "but back then we were glad to get it.... You know what I'm getting at? And I could show you other places right here in West Palm that hardly anyone knows about."

Two blocks west of the cemetery, Tillman gestures toward a deserted baseball field that looks weedy and unkempt, as if it hasn't seen a decent game in years. Fenced in, the field is surrounded by houses on littered dirt plots. Thin, mangy dogs napping on porches don't bother to bark at strangers. As if viewing the scene through a lens from the past, Tillman talks proudly about crowds of thousands who gathered in the 1950s to watch famed pitcher Satchel Paige, catcher and home run champion Josh Gibson, and even color barrier­breaker Jackie Robinson hit homers. Before then, when unrecognized players in Negro Leagues played for the West Palm Beach Giants and other clubs in the '30s and '40s, Tillman remembers selling sodas for 5 cents and packs of Camels for 15 cents.

"This was a place where the rich came to get away, to play, you know?" Tillman says. "We had hotels like the Breakers and the Royal Poinciana, where we could get jobs, but even famous players like Jackie Robinson couldn't stay. He used to have family around here. This," he makes a sweeping gesture, "was like home to him.... It was the place to be."

Several blocks south of the ball field, Tillman passes the Tabernacle Baptist Church, founded in 1893, where the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once spoke in the late '50s, at the height of the civil rights movement. Glancing at the church's stained-glass windows and weather-beaten oak doors, Tillman recalls that "lots of powerful people came through here because West Palm Beach was big as far as blacks getting involved."

Just up the street, a pink stucco building with shrubbery that partially obscures small windows turns out to be the former Pine Ridge Hospital, built for just $1600 in 1916. The hospital served blacks who were denied treatment at white establishments and, while doctors were few and supplies were limited (operations were frequently hit or miss), it was nevertheless one of very few South Florida hospitals that would accept black patients until the early '50s. "It was a hard time, especially during the Depression," Tillman recalls. "Doctors didn't even have a light box for x-rays. They had to hold them up to a window to see." (After more than a decade of abandonment, the site was recently converted to low-income apartments.)

The tour over, Tillman returns to his combination home and office. He goes upstairs to his living quarters, where photos of deceased relatives, whose lineage goes back to Sierra Leone, cover his bedroom dresser. The largest is a picture of his wife, Frankie, who died in 1994 and was the first black registered voter in West Palm Beach. (Records show she registered in 1948.) For Tillman each room in his house is a moment in time: antique bedspreads from his mother, ethnic artwork from his travels to Haiti and Cuba, and event posters from the civil rights era. Piles of books, news clippings, and photos by and about old black West Palm Beachers litter the house.

"There is so much I could show you," Tillman says, "so much that people don't know about. But we have a strong history here, we built this area together because we were all in the same boat." He advocates spending whatever it takes to restore the area. "But you need to tie everything in, make the whole area respectable with the history."

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