In Bartow, Polk County, sits one of Central Florida’s most historic homes, the L.B. Brown House, which was built in 1892 by Lawrence Bernard Brown, an African American who was born into slavery. A self-taught master carpenter, Brown was born in Alachua County in 1856 but later settled in Bartow in the late 1880s, where he became a prominent businessman and gained skills in many areas including engineering, furniture making and repair, silversmithing, well digging, banking and real estate.
Being born in slavery meant he was not allowed to learn how to read and write. Thus, he was largely self-taught. But his limited education didn’t stop him from progressing in life as a builder and developer. In fact, Brown became Polk County’s richest man of color during the late 1800s as a prominent builder, according to Click Orlando News.
“Here’s a man who was born into slavery and was freed at the end of the Civil War at the age of 9, and grew up in some very dangerous times for freedmen and women and still was able to become successful and was admired in this community and was successful in his business as well as personal relationships,” Charles B. Warren, a Bartow resident, said of Brown during an interview with The Ledger.
Warren has written a book about Brown’s extraordinary life titled “From Slavery to Community Builder: The Story of Lawrence B. Brown”. His book describes how racial violence compelled Brown to leave Alachua County to Bartow, where, as a builder and carpenter, he started building homes to start up communities. He constructed homes in Alachua County as well as Volusia County in the 1870s and 1880s.
He also built his family home, a 9-room Victorian house where he lived with his wife, AnnieBelle, and seven children. When Brown died in 1941 at age 84, one of his daughters, Louvenia Brown Thomas, continued to live in that house (now known as the L.B. Brown House) until her death in 1989.
The building was abandoned and was recently about to be demolished when Clifton Lewis, who is now president of Neighborhood Improvement Corporation in Bartow, learned of its historical significance. In 1999, Lewis started bringing the house back to life. It cost him about $600,000 to restore the building to prevent it from being demolished.
“It was very important for us to preserve this house so that this generation and future generations would know that along with the suffering and everything that the blacks went through, they achieved much,” Lewis told Click Orlando News.
Brown’s 1892 house was built with plaster and sits on 18 tree stumps. It now operates as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The L.B. Brown House is also recognized in an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The house continues to attract visitors mostly from outside Polk County and outside the country who are amazed by its architecture and great history. Many details of the house remain original.
“The two-story, nine-room Victorian style house evokes the charm of a bed and breakfast with its gingerbread trim, floral wallpaper, and wrap-around porches on both levels. The hand-beveled moldings, baseboard corner blocks, and hand-silvered mirrors throughout the house were all handcrafted by Brown and show the high level of skill and attention to detail that he possessed. Even the foundation stones, blocks, and bricks were manufactured by Brown,” Eagle News writes.
Warren, while researching Brown’s life to write his book, said he realized that Brown’s successes were inspired by his father, Peter Brown, who managed a homestead in Archer after being freed from slavery. Warren said Brown also learned from others he met and he had mentors, both White and Black, who helped him to learn his profession.
Indeed, the L.B. Brown House he is famous for remains an integral part of Bartow, Polk County, Florida, and American history, Lewis said.