MELBOURNE, Fla. Patrolled by rattlesnakes and black bears, present-day Melbourne was still a lush, mosquito-infested wilderness after the Civil War.
Enter three freed slaves: Peter Wright, Wright Brothers and Balaam Allen. The original settlers of Crane Creek’s predecessor community established homesteads near the mouth of the pristine river between 1867 and the mid-1870s, according to historians.
The brothers and Allen grew citrus and together founded the Greater Allen Chapel AME Church, Melbourne’s first place of worship. Meanwhile, Wright was becoming known as “the sailing mailman,” delivering mail by boat from Titusville to Malabar along the scenic Indian River Lagoon.
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But over the decades, the legacy of these three black settlers has been largely forgotten. Stories about South Brevard’s early black residents are “nearly nonexistent” and are found only in scraps of evidence, noted historian Weona Cleveland in a 1988 FLORIDA TODAY story about Melbourne’s forgotten pioneers.
Now, South Brevard’s Grassroots Concerned Citizens Committee is proposing to erect a $400,000 public memorial with bronze statues of Wright, Brothers and Allen on a podium in Riverview Park News 6 affiliates Florida Today.
“Our society is pretty good at recognizing military 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, especially at the local level, to recognize people who have made a difference. And certainly these three—Captain Peter Wright, Balaam Allen, and the Wright Brothers—were significant to our area. And her story is virtually unknown,” said Brotemarkle.
“I think recognition is very important, especially for people who are usually underrepresented. We know of some pioneers in the area, but we haven’t heard much from these three men of African descent,” he said.
On Tuesday evening, Melbourne City Council expressed its conceptual support for the statue project. No final decisions have been made and a formal discussion will take place at a future meeting.
“These three men are the best kept secret in Melbourne,” said Councilor Yvonne Minus. She suggested that they receive some form of recognition at City Hall, such as pictures.
Mayor Paul Alfrey said he fully supports the project.
“At a time and place in our country where we don’t respect our heritage and are tearing down statues, in the city of Melbourne we respect our heritage and our founders,” Alfrey said.
South Brevard’s Concerned Citizens Committee is launching a fundraiser with hopes of funding the project within two years.
The Riverview Park memorial would also feature a 14½ foot Crane Creek Founders archway, historical marker, circular wall, benches and landscaping. Estimated cost breakdown:
Foundation and wall: $60,000
Archway and electrical/solar installations: $15,000 each
Irrigation and landscaping/benches: $5,000 each
Project organizer Teri Jones gave a PowerPoint presentation during the city council meeting. She said the Citizens’ Committee launched the site Founders’ Monument.org postcards sent in May about the project in June and printed brochures in July.
“We’re not asking (the city) to plan any type of city capital project to provide construction or program funding,” Jones told council members.
Last year, South Brevard’s Concerned Citizens Committee oversaw the cleanup of contaminated soil during construction of Heritage Park at Crane Creek, a four-story affordable housing complex on the west end of WH Jackson Street.
According to “History of Brevard County: Volume 1” in 1860, after the Seminole Wars only about 300 tough pioneers lived in the newly formed Brevard County. This 1995 book, commissioned by the Brevard County Historical Commission, credits the freedmen trio as Melbourne’s first settlers.
“Hunters used Crane Creek as an inland route for several years before settlers first arrived in Melbourne in the mid-1870s. First came three black men, Peter Wright, Wright Brothers and Balaam Allen,” reads the book, which was written by Jerrell Shofner, former chair of the history department at the University of Central Florida.
“Richard W. Goode brought his family over from Chicago in early 1877, and Cornthwaite J. Hector came shortly after. 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 says.
Various historical markers and tributes honoring the three early black pioneers are scattered across Melbourne – but their stories remain largely unknown, said Joseph McNeil, president of South Brevard’s Concerned Citizens Committee.
A historic plaque honoring Wright stands at the Overlook Park Pavilion on Riverview Drive. Brothers Park on Race Street is named in honor of the brothers behind the Joseph N. Davis Community Center.
In 1884, Balaam and Salina Allen and Robert and Carrie Lipscomb met at the Wright and Mary brothers’ home near the south bank of Crane Creek to organize a church for the black community. They founded the Greater Allen Chapel AME Church, which became Melbourne’s first place of worship in 1885, according to the church’s website.
The Village of Melbourne was officially incorporated in December 1888 by a verbal vote among a group of 23 people. These settlers then elected officials and agreed on a city seal depicting a pineapple plant, a crane and a palm tree, according to the city hall’s 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. There are plans to convert the aging structure into a museum in collaboration with Northrop Grumman.
The Greater Allen Chapel AME Church created the Melbourne Founders Festival in 2018 to honor the three freed men. The annual event features food, vendors, entertainment, dancing, arts, crafts and information booths.
Wright once 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 put his sailboat up the river all night to deliver the mail on time,” Cleveland wrote.
“As he approached the port of Crane Creek, he would take with him a large conch shell, which he used as a horn to announce the arrival of the mail. Wright was paid $8 a month for his efforts as a mailman through rain, wind, heat, and storms.”