As an educator and a man who valued lifelong learning, John G. Riley would be proud to know that more than 30,000 schoolchildren have toured his home and come to know his story. For nearly 15 years, the Blended Lives program has offered every fourth-grader in the Leon County school district a look at his life and legacy. Spearheaded by the John Gilmore Riley Center/Museum for African American History & Culture Inc., the Blended Lives program introduces children to a local leader whose accomplishments continue to serve as inspiration.
Born a slave in 1857, Riley was taught to read by his aunt. He continued his education and became a teacher. He later served as the first African-American principal of a Leon County School and enjoyed a 49-year career of educational excellence and leadership. Riley rose to a place of prominence during a time when such a thing was all but unthinkable and, along the way, he acquired a significant amount of property.
Among the few African-Americans in Tallahassee to own land at the turn of the century, he was known for improving the homes on his property and renting them to other African-Americans.
The community that arose from this practice was known as Smokey Hollow.
Riley’s own home was built on the edge of Smokey Hollow, and it has been preserved as a museum, a historic landmark and featured location in the Blended Lives program.
Levitticus Roberts is the Riley Center’s director of museum education and for the past five years has coordinated Blended Lives. Holding true to the main goal of the educational experience, she hopes that students gain “a complete understanding that African-American history is not separate from American history, it’s intertwined.
That’s the whole concept of Blended Lives. You have these different genres of history, but it’s all one in the same, not separate compartments.”
To better illustrate this point, the Riley Center works with the Florida Historic Capitol and Goodwood Museum & Gardens to bring history into context. In partnership with Leon County Schools, a curriculum is developed with the collaboration of area fourth-grade teachers. Students work through that content before they board the bus for the site visit.
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