A building that was once an African-American library during segregation may get another chance at life after the Pensacola City Council opted not to sell the building.
The Pensacola City Council voted 6-1 Thursday against selling the building that was the former site of the Alice S. Williams Library in the hopes of finding a way to preserve the building for future uses, such as a new library or museum.
The building was named after Williams, who was a prominent Black educator in Pensacola from the 1910s to the 1940s. She became assistant principal of Booker T. Washington High School in 1940 and died a year later.
After her death, members of the Black community in Pensacola came together to raise money to build a library. The building was completed 1952, and it was named in honor of Williams, becoming part of the city’s library system.
The library closed in 1976, and the building was turned into a day care center that operated until 2006.
The City Council declared the property surplus in 2016, and it has been on the real estate market since.
A potential buyer made an offer on the property and the 3,000-square-foot building for $115,000. The proceeds of the sale were intended to go into a fund to pay for the construction of affordable housing in the city.
When Councilwoman Ann Hill, who has advocated for historic preservation of buildings since she was elected in 2018, found out about the property, she began to look into the history of the building.
“I’m hoping we won’t do the same thing,” Hill said, referring to past instances where the city failed to save historic buildings. “That we don’t learn until it’s too late to save something. What I would prefer is that there are a couple of things we could do besides selling it. I would like to keep it as a city property.”
Councilman John Jerralds said when he was a child, he went to that location for the library regularly and learned to read there.
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“I started to attend the Alice Williams Public Library in 1952,” Jerralds said. “When I entered the first grade, I learned how to read, how to spell and how to behave in the library. I would highly recommend that it is preserved.”
Jerralds suggested restoring the building and turning it back into a library.
Hill said with 3,000 square feet, the building could house a library or a museum.
Council President Jewel Cannada-Wynn said she agreed the building should be saved, but believed all that the council should decide Thursday was whether to reject the sale of the building and should address later what the building could become.
Not every council member was on board with the idea. Councilman Andy Terhaar said that the council voted to surplus the land, and he felt it was unfair to the buyer to go back on that decision.
“We get an offer and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh never mind, we don’t want to sell it,'” Terhaar said. “And unfortunately, it’s just typical of the way this government runs.”
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said the decision to surplus the property was made in a previous administration, and he felt it was fair to bring it back to the current council for its opinion.
Robinson added that he understood Terhaar’s frustration, particularly as someone who has experience in the real estate business.
“I certainly would be very frustrated if I were the Realtor on this, which I have been there, but at the same time, I respect my client’s decision,” Robinson said. “Clients change their decisions from time to time, and people may not want to sell anymore. So, I think sellers have that prerogative.”
Hill said she would like a list of other properties that were declared as surplus during the previous administration that hadn’t been sold to see if the council may consider keeping them.
Jerralds said saving the building was important to him.
“This item is as important to me and many others as the Confederate monument is to others,” Jerralds said. “It was productive. It was a library. It’s where I learned, and many people learned to read. I don’t know what they’ve learned at the Confederate monument, but I do know that this project and this site is worth preserving.”
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.