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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center reopens

The museum closed due to COVID-19 and a pivotal member died shortly after

Kenneth Nunn, UF law professor, listens to a speech during the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center's re-opening reception on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021.
Kenneth Nunn, UF law professor, listens to a speech during the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center's re-opening reception on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021.

The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center reopened its doors with a celebratory reception Sunday after being closed for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 100 people attended the event, which lasted from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. State Sen. Keith Perry made a brief appearance, and Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe made a short, two-minute speech.

“It just feels right, doesn't it?” Poe said. “Because we’re all back together sharing in fellowship … From the beginning, this center wasn’t just about the past. You certainly want to preserve the past and put a flag in the ground for all the history that came through this place and also the community around it, but it was always about building that bridge to the future.”

Music, refreshments, raffle prizes and a video presentation were featured at the in-person event. While the CCMCC put on several virtual events over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Evelyn Foxx was ready to resume normal museum operations.Foxx, the president of the local NAACP chapter and a CCMCC board member, said the board didn’t want to close the museum but needed to ensure the safety of the community. 

“This is wonderful. Isn’t this a beautiful place?” Foxx said. “We’re ready to have people come in and enjoy it like they did prior to COVID.” 

The event also featured artwork from UF psychologist Anthony Greene, and Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, a prominent member of the CCMCC who died in 2020. The event was almost as much a celebration of her life as it was of the museum’s reopening. 

Among being a professor at UF, an artist, a dancer and an outspoken activist, Hilliard-Nunn helped the CCMCC from the very beginning to raise funds, write grant proposals and organize events, her husband Kenneth Nunn said. He attended the event and volunteered her art for it, knowing how invested she was in the museum’s mission. 

“Tricia came in with both feet and got really excited about it, and I was a skeptic,” he said. “I was like, ‘You’re wasting your time raising this money and doing all this work. I’m really glad to see it, but I just don’t think that building is going to get together.’”

Back in the mid-‘90s, the museum wasn’t a museum. The building was run down and in desperate need of repair, according to a presentation at the event. Vivian Filer, the CCMCC founder and chair, said it was previously a part of a military base in World War II before it was a movie theater. Then, it turned into a Big Band’s club, featuring performers like James Brown, B.B. King and Bo Diddley, before becoming a warehouse. 

That’s when Filer and her church bought the building and began transforming it into the Cotton Club museum. 

Filer is a strong believer in the influence the museum has, and she encouraged Hilliard-Nunn to get involved, Kenneth said. 

Attendees like Nathaniel Courtney, 39, particularly appreciated both Filer and Hilliard-Nunn’s work ethic and vibrance.

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“I remember being a child … and she would come and read stories to different schools here,” Courtney said. “Such a beautiful spirit. Just a testament to what we can do as a community, especially when we have impactful leaders like Ms. Filer and like Dr. Hilliard-Nunn.”

He said he appreciates Hilliard-Nunn’s legacy. 

“Her spirit is alive and well today,” Courtney said. “It just speaks to the close-knit community that Gainesville is and then the impact that she had on this community, particularly her ability to help bring back this museum to life.”

Zachary Carnell is a contributing writer for The Alligator.

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