Dressed in a black tuxedo and bow tie, James Washington looked ready for a wedding. A white rose boutonniere adorned his lapel. A small photograph of his grandmother, Janie Bing, sat above his heart, peeking out from the baby's breath around it. "I've been waiting for this for a long time," Washington, 67, said. "I'm married to this house."
Born in the front room, Washington grew up in the early 1920s building named after his grandmother at 205 S Allen St. The Bing Rooming House served as a hotel for African-Americans during the segregation era. Athletes and celebrities stayed during trips through town.
Now, with Washington's help, it's becoming a museum.
In 1999, Washington deeded the house to the Improvement League of Plant City so it could be restored and converted to a museum dedicated to the collection and preservation of local black history from the segregation era.
Last week, the Improvement League unveiled the first floor of the two-story building at a Plant City Chamber of Commerce event. There are two rooms on display inside the sparkling white house, including one of the bedrooms where the Bing family lived.
The home's original wood floors were replaced and bathrooms remodeled; a concrete slab was poured under the raised house.
Upstairs, eight bedrooms used for overnight guests still await remodeling, and a restaurant in the back of the building has yet to be touched.
The museum has received $358,000 in funding, Improvement League officials said. The city and state pitched in about $120,000 each, and the Improvement League raised the rest through community fundraisers and grants.
About $45,000 is still needed to finish the project, Improvement League officials said.
During segregation, the Bing House served as one of the area's four rooming houses for African-Americans. Members of the Negro Baseball League stayed there when they came into town to play the Plant City Aces. Musicians Muddy Waters and James Brown stayed overnight when they stopped at nearby venues for shows, local historians said.
It's the only remaining rooming house in the neighborhood.
The museum also is seeking artifacts to display. Historic black and white photographs of a local all-black football team and community groups cover the wooden walls. Newspaper articles depicting the building's past sit on easels in the front room.
"Future generations can learn from this," said William Thomas Jr., vice president of the Improvement League. "A lot of kids in this area are not aware of our history."
That's Washington's hope for the museum, too.
"I want to see some type of history left for this community," he said. As part of the agreement he made with the Improvement League, Washington will live in private quarters in the back of the building. He's one of several descendents of Bing still living in the area.
The project is important to the city, Plant City Mayor Dan Raulerson said.
"It is important to preserve a period of time that we need to remember and honor," Raulerson said. "The Bing House represents the time of segregation. We look back and try to learn from those things."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.