The Gathering Awareness and Book Center moved to the Historical Belmont & DeVilliers Business District at 314 N. DeVilliers St. in Pensacola, Florida with an impactful blast from the past as it forges ahead with its new future. Georgia and Johnny Blackmon owners of the twenty (20) year old retail business flexed its business and community relationship-building muscle in an historical building in an historical neighborhood with a dialogue about a rich historical past. The celebrated event was branded as “Conversations about the Blocks” and brought the history of Pensacola’s African-American community front and center for all to hear.
John Jerralds, former educator and former city councilman; Martin Lewis, area historian; Zoya Webster Philips, owner of Benboe Funeral Home, Admiral Leroy, Out Front Magazine Owner and Publisher Emeritus; and Johnny Blackmon, Co-Owner of The Gathering Awareness and Book Center served as the guest speakers for the occasion. Sharing the space with an overflow crowd, their dialogue focused on the overall remembering of the life experiences of the business area over the years. For example, Ms. Philips recollected that the building at 314 N. DeVilliers was at one time the first Black-owned dance studio by Josephine Newton the wife of businessman John P. Newton, Sr., who was also owner of the Bunny Club. She also shared the history that the ownership of the Savoy Night Club (one time located across the street from the dance studio), and the Roxy Movie Theater on the southwest corner of “A” and Cervantes Streets were owned by a Ms. Emily James, a female entrepreneur.
Martin Lewis made comments on the educational environment that existed during segregation when students could matriculate through their schooling from the first grade to the twelfth grade within five blocks. He also made an interesting comparison between Belmont & DeVilliers and other more famous business districts like Harlem, New York and distinguished the Pensacola neighborhood as more income diverse with families of middle class, blue-collar, and low-income status combined.
For Georgia Blackmon and her husband Johnny, this event personified how the Gathering has operated since they opened at their former north “E” Street location twenty years ago when they moved out of their home as the business location. The “E” Street store was a very unique retail, and community meeting place.
There was a small Black historical archives-like and cultural center atmosphere of pictures and newspaper articles located in the rear section the building that provided the atmosphere for civic engagement in community organizing, neighborhood development, and get-out-the-vote strategies. The love of community has always been depicted in the operation of their business enterprise.
The retail focus on books, and church supplies has provided the base of consumer support and pride in the entrepreneurial attitude of the Blackmon family. In fact, Georgia credits her years in retail at Carmen Daniels, Judy Leslie dress shops, and McCrae’s Department Store with fueling her decision “to take years of what I learned in retail to open my store on “E” Street.”
The Blackmon’s Gathering Awareness now serves as far east as Panama City, as far west as Gulf Port, Mississippi, and as far north as Beatrice, Alabama.