Twelve years in the making, renovations are almost complete at a boardinghouse turned museum dedicated to preserving the experiences and culture of African-Americans during the segregation era in Plant City.
The final restoration project at the Bing Rooming House Museum will cover work on the building's second floor as well as work on first-floor living quarters.
The last nail should be hammered home by mid September.
A National Historical Site, the Bing House anchors Plant City's Laura Street Restoration District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its role as a hotel for African-Americas during segregation.
"There is hardly any other structure in that neighborhood from the 1920s that is still intact," said William Thomas, vice president of the Improvement League of Plant City. The league, which is headquartered in the Bing House, is overseeing renovations.
"The contribution of African-Americans to Plant City, from education to business, is significant and needs to be preserved like anything else, and those things we don't take lightly."
Voices and memories of those who lived through the segregation era that could easily have been lost to time are preserved at the Bing House, thanks to oral histories.
The stories of men and women who lived daily with an institutional and societal racism that determined everything from where they sat on a bus to what school they could attend are recorded for younger generations at the museum.
"During that era, African-Americans didn't take a lot of photos; there was no emphasis on preserving history," Thomas said. "But oral histories make it more personal, and not just the bad memories but how families went through and dealt with the process of segregation.
"Now children will not only be able to read about the history but also hear and see it. There is nothing like a teenager seeing their grandparent talking about the importance of family."
The museum also includes artifacts, storyboards and letters.
"The Bing House really is a significant part of our history," said Gil Gott, executive director of the Plant City Photo Archives.
The archive and Improvement League have partnered on several exhibitions and events.
"If you look at the evolution of our social mores you find great changes have taken place over the years, and the Bing House is symbolic of that."
The Bing House didn't just serve locals. Barred from Tampa's hotels in the 1950s because of the color of his skin, Curt Flood, a Major League Baseball player, took a taxi to Plant City to stay at the Bing House. Baseball great Satchel Paige and musician Muddy Waters also stayed there.
"It really was an oasis for many people coming to visit this area," Gott said. "The story of the Bing Rooming House is definitely a good story about the tenacity and perseverance of members of the black community, and this historic facility is a wonderful asset for the greater Plant City community, the region and the state of Florida."
The museum emphasizes the Plant City community's triumph over segregation, according to the Improvement League.
"And the transition from segregation," Thomas said. "One of the descendants of original owners of the house, E.L. Bing, designed and implemented Hillsborough County's desegregation plan in the 1960s."
Opened in 1925, the building is named after Janie Wheeler Bing, the hotel's first owner. It included a restaurant and 10 bedrooms at the hotel's peak and closed in 1970. Janie Wheeler Bing deeded the building to her grandchildren who later passed it on to James Washington, Janie Bing's grandson.
Washington, who will live in an apartment in the building's rear, deeded the property to the nonprofit Improvement League in 1999 with a stipulation that he could still live there.
All told, about $400,000 has been spent on restoring the property, which fell into disrepair during the 1980s.
Money well spent, says Thomas.
"The city has treated the Bing House no differently than any other historic building in Plant City that has been invested in. We (the Improvement League) believe the city, local businesses and residents have strongly supported having a black museum locally and recognize and respect contributions by blacks to the overall 100-year-plus history of Plant City."
Kevin Brady can be reached at [email protected]