MELBOURNE, Fla. – Patrolled by rattlesnakes and black bears, modern-day Melbourne was still a lush, mosquito-infested wilderness during the aftermath of the Civil War.
Enter three freed slaves: Peter Wright, Wright Brothers, and Balaam Allen. The original settlers of predecessor community Crane Creek, they founded homesteads near the mouth of the pristine river between 1867 and the mid-1870s, historians say.
Brothers and Allen grew citrus and co-founded Greater Allen Chapel AME Church, Melbourne’s first house of worship. Meanwhile, Wright gained prominence as “the sailing mailman,” delivering mail via boat from Titusville to Malabar along the picturesque Indian River Lagoon.
But as decades passed, the legacies of these three Black settlers have been largely forgotten. Stories of South Brevard’s early Black residents are “almost nonexistent” and found only in scraps of evidence, historian Weona Cleveland noted in a 1988 FLORIDA TODAY story on Melbourne’s forgotten pioneers.
Now, the grassroots Concerned Citizens Committee of South Brevard proposes to create a $400,000 public monument featuring bronze statues of Wright, Brothers and Allen atop a podium at Riverview Park, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
“Our society is pretty good about recognizing military people and political leaders and, to a lesser extent, cultural icons,” said Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society.
“But it’s just as important, particularly on the local level, to recognize people who have made an impact. And certainly these three — Capt. Peter Wright, Balaam Allen and Wright Brothers — were significant to our area. And their story is virtually unknown,” Brotemarkle said.
“I think the recognition is very important, particularly for people who are typically underrepresented. We know about some pioneers in the area, but these three men of African descent we haven’t heard much about,” he said.
Tuesday night, the Melbourne City Council expressed conceptual support for the statue project. No final decisions have been made, and formal discussion will occur during a future meeting.
“These three men are the best-kept secret in Melbourne,” Council Member Yvonne Minus said. She suggested that they receive some form of recognition, such as pictures, inside City Hall.
Mayor Paul Alfrey said he fully supports the project.
“In a time and place in our country where we’re not respecting our heritage and we’re tearing down statues, in the city of Melbourne we’re respecting our heritage and our founders,” Alfrey said.
The Concerned Citizens Committee of South Brevard is launching a fundraising drive, with hopes of financing the project within two years.
The Riverview Park monument would also feature a 14½-foot-high “Crane Creek Founders” archway, a historical marker, circular wall, benches and landscaping. Estimated cost breakdown:
- Statues: $225,000
- Foundation and wall: $60,000
- Maintenance/replacement: $45,000
- Permitting/design/construction: $30,000
- Archway and electrical/solar fixtures: $15,000 each
- Irrigation and landscaping/benches: $5,000 each
Project organizer Teri Jones delivered a PowerPoint presentation during the City Council meeting. She said the citizens committee launched the website foundersmonument.org in May, mailed postcards about the project in June, and printed brochures in July.
“We’re not asking (the city) to schedule any kind of city capital project to take on construction or program funding,” Jones told council members.
Last year, the Concerned Citizens Committee of South Brevard monitored the cleanup of contaminated soils during construction of Heritage Park at Crane Creek, a four-story affordable housing complex off the west end of W.H. Jackson Street.
In the aftermath of the Seminole Wars, only about 300 hardy pioneers inhabited the recently created Brevard County in 1860, according to “History of Brevard County: Volume 1.” Commissioned by the Brevard County Historical Commission, this 1995 book credits the trio of freedmen as Melbourne’s first settlers.
“Hunters had been using Crane Creek as a route to the interior for several years before the first settlers of Melbourne arrived in the mid-1870s. First to arrive were three black men, Peter Wright, Wright Brothers, and Balaam Allen,” said the book, which was written by Jerrell Shofner, former chair of the University of Central Florida history department.
“Richard W. Goode brought his family from Chicago in early 1877 and Cornthwaite J. Hector came shortly afterward. A few others settled in the area and Melbourne was named in 1880 when a post office was established in Hector’s general store,” the book said.
Various historical markers and tributes honoring the three early Black pioneers are scattered throughout Melbourne — but their stories remain largely unknown, said Joseph McNeil, Concerned Citizens Committee of South Brevard president.
A historical marker honoring Wright stands at the Overlook Park gazebo on Riverview Drive. Brothers Park on Race Street is named in Brothers’ honor, behind the Joseph N. Davis Community Center.
In 1884, Balaam and Salina Allen and Robert and Carrie Lipscomb met inside the home of Wright and Mary Brothers near the southern bank of Crane Creek to organize a church for the Black community. They founded Greater Allen Chapel AME Church, which became Melbourne’s first house of worship in 1885, according to the church website.
The village of Melbourne was formally created in December 1888 via spoken vote among a group of 23 people. These settlers then elected officers and agreed on a city seal depicting a pineapple plant, a crane and a palmetto tree, according to the City Hall website.
In May, the nonprofit Greater Allen Development Corporation moved the 1,100 square-foot cottage where the church founders met to the corner of Lipscomb Street and Brothers Avenue. Plans are afoot to convert the aging structure into a museum, in collaboration with Northrop Grumman.
Greater Allen Chapel AME Church launched the Melbourne Founders Festival in 2018 to honor the three freedmen. The annual event features food, vendors, entertainment, dance, arts, crafts and informational booths.
At one time, Wright owned much of what is now downtown Melbourne, Cleveland reported in her 1988 FLORIDA TODAY story.
“It was said that, if the winds were not favorable, Wright would pole his sailboat along the river all night to deliver the mail on schedule,” Cleveland wrote.
“As he approached Crane Creek harbor, he would take a large conch shell, using it as a horn, to announce the mail’s arrival. For his efforts as mailman in rain, wind, heat and gales, Wright was paid $8 per month.”