September 11, 2013

Clearing the Air: Commemorating Tallahassee's Smokey Hollow Community

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Part of the community of Smokey Hollow in 1963. Credit: Althemese Barnes/John G. Riley House & Museum.
Part of the community of Smokey Hollow in 1963.

Smokey Hollow was a place where neighbors looked out for each other. Founded in the 1890s and located just east of downtown Tallahassee, employment and home ownership stayed high in this middle-class African-American community right up until the 1960s.

Then everything changed.

The land that Smokey Hollow stood on was slated for “urban renewal” by the state of Florida, meaning that it was prime real estate that could be annexed for an expansion of downtown Tallahassee or any number of other uses. Approximately 500 people lived in Smokey Hollow when it started to be “dismantled” in incremental steps, estimates Dr. Jennifer Koslow of Florida State University.

“Normally in urban renewal the federal government set aside money for mortgages [for new houses,]” says Koslow. “Most of the African-Americans were not afforded that opportunity. They did not receive either federal help or local help, and there was no public housing created for any of the people that were displaced.”

The John G. Riley House Museum in Tallahassee, Fl. Credit: Althemese Barnes/John G. Riley House & Museum.
The John G. Riley House Museum in Tallahassee, Fla.

Of the neighborhood of shotgun-style houses that was once Smokey Hollow, only one street remains. So what was the land freed up from the destruction of this once-thriving community ultimately used for? Koslow explains that for the last 40 years, the space has mostly consisted of parking lots and neglected, empty space.

Smokey Hollow might have continued to fade into distant memory if not, in part, for the efforts of Althemese Barnes, the founding executive director of the John G. Riley House and Museum in Tallahassee. The house was the former home of educator John G. Riley, a man who was born enslaved in 1857 and died a millionaire in 1954.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and purchased by the John G. Riley Foundation in 1982, the house opened as the John G. Riley Center and Museum of African American History and Culture in 1996. For years, it was the only existing monument to Smokey Hollow's prosperous heyday.

Another view of Smokey Hollow. Credit: State Archives of Florida.
Another view of Smokey Hollow.

In 2009 the city of Tallahassee and local government development agency Blueprint 2000 started work on Cascades Park, a 24-acre green space built in the footprint of Smokey Hollow. When Barnes learned of plans for the park, she felt that these plans needed to include some kind of commemoration of the formerly vibrant community that had once stood in the same space.

“I contacted former residents of Smokey Hollow and had to break through a lot of anger and bad feelings,” says Barnes. She used their input to shape the interpretation of Smokey Hollow’s history that would be included in the new park.

Barnes’ vision will finally begin to come to fruition in early 2014 with the opening of Smokey Hollow Village, a group of three “spirit houses,” or replicas of the shotgun houses that were once characteristic of  Smokey Hollow. The houses will feature interpretive panels with information about the history of the community and will be built without walls so that visitors can move between them freely. A grand opening of a brand-new visitors' center is also scheduled for the end of September.

Phase II and Phase III of the project include a walking trail from the site of the spirit houses to the Riley museum,  interpretive signage scattered throughout the park, and a new pavilion for visitors.

The former Meridian Street in Smokey Hollow, circa 1958. Credit: Althemese Barnes/John G. Riley House & Museum.
The former Meridian Street in Smokey Hollow, circa 1958.

Barnes, with help from a committee comprised of Dr. Jennifer Koslow and others, also spearheaded efforts to have a Historic American Landscapes Survey done to commemorate Smokey Hollow. Once completed, the survey will be filed in the Library of Congress.

"It took many of us to develop and build Tallahassee," says Barnes of the importance of documenting the neighborhood's history. "Much of the work force back then [in the town's early days] were people out of Smokey Hollow."

Although it’s difficult to repair the damage caused by destroying people's homes and way of life, Koslow sees the new developments as steps in the right direction.

“The community [outside Smokey Hollow] is definitely trying to rectify what they see as a wrong,” she says. “This argument about urban renewal, it destroyed a vibrant, living community.”

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

Learn More