Black history saved with relocation of Jiles’ houses

One by one, two houses once owned by Willis Jiles were moved to a location near FAMU Way.
Photo submitted
Larry Rivers

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Applauding a successful push that saved two historic houses from demolition, a prominent history professor said young people in Tallahassee now have a rare opportunity to learn.

Specifically Larry Rivers, PhD,  a professor at FAMU, believes the houses that were owned by Willis Jiles can help young people understand what Black life was like.

“They represent an era of Black progress,” said Rivers. “They represent an era where Blacks were moving out of reconstruction, going into the 1930s and 40’s and were working hard to achieve in society. These buildings represented Black culture, Black progress.

“We must not tear those building down because they are historical reminders of a time when Blacks came out of slavery and started to progress with their own businesses, their own communities. These building represent that culture (and) that community.”

Relocation of the houses was completed in late September. They are now on property near the intersection of Disston and Wailes Streets in the former Villa Mitchell subdivision, just off FAMU Way.

“Putting the Jiles houses right next to King Solomon Dupont’s house gives us an opportunity to tell a bigger story, a wider story; what I think is a more important story than just the Jiles houses,” said historian Priscilla Hawkins, who is working with the project. “It really talks about the legacy and the three generations involved in that legacy at this point.”

The houses were up for demolition by Georgia-based Landmark Properties to make room for development at the location off West Saint Augustine Street. However, the developers agreed to donate the homes to Ward Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit that Jiles granddaughter Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker serves as president.

The houses could make one more move to a permanent location, Dupont-Walker said. The possible location could be on property near Fountain Chapel church, once a place where protesters signed up to participate in the Tallahassee bus boycott.

Meanwhile, a fund-raising drive in underway to pay for the relocation and complete the project with restoration. A gofundme account has been set up with the keyword Jiles houses.

“We want to get as many people as possible involved,” said Hawkins. “We want the story to be told.”

Ultimately,Dupont-Walker would like to see the building used as history rooms or museum.

“We want the things in Tallahassee that can be shared to be share so that our history is not lost,” said Dupont-Walker.

Despite her relationship to Jiles, Dupont-Walker was the last to join a group of four that Hawking called “an island of individuals.” Max Epstein, an environmentalist who is also a researcher at the DeVoe Moore Center, was first to get word out about the potential perilous fate of the buildings. 

Epstein was eventually joined by Hawkins. Havana businessman Jose Tapia came onto the project as the intended financer of the move before an urgent business opportunity pulled him out. 

Dupont-Walker, daughter of civil right activist Rev. King Solomon Dupont, decided to bring in her California-based non-profit to fund the move. The houses now sit next to a brick home where King Solomon Dupont, the first Black man to run for an elected office in Tallahassee, lived.

The houses and another one that was on the lot in what is now College Town, were property that Jiles rented before losing them in a tax sale. Jiles also was one of the city’s first Black entrepreneur who operated Jiles Shoe Factory, the only Black-owned business in downtown at the time.

Dupont-Walker recalled that her grandfather didn’t discriminate when he rented his houses.

“He lost his business, but he never lost his will to make things better for other people,” she said. “We know the houses we were able to save were houses he had built so he could provide decent affordable housing for others. Even though segregation was the order of the day, they made a point of saying that he rented to Whites and Blacks. That had to have been huge.”

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