Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday November 25th 2014

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History and Burgers

Exploring Belmont-DeVilliers with Documentarian Robin Reshard
By Jeremy Morrison

A scattering of old blocks jutting from the ground have excited Robin Reshard. She goes in for a closer inspection.

“Over here,” Reshard said, pointing to the ground. “This is the foundation of the 506 Club. I just love it. This is the coolest thing.”

The 506 Club, Reshard had explained, was “the place to come have a party.” Nestled in Pensacola’s Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, the 506 Club—or, Abe’s 506 Club—was a popular nightclub and played host to black musicians traveling the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit,’ a string of venues serving the performers and their audiences during the years of segregation.

“If you can imagine, it was huge—huge!” Reshard said. “You know, it was a party. They said it was fabulous.”

Reshard is not a historian.

“I’m not,” she said. “But I am becoming fast friends with the historians and archivists.”

Reshard is a documentary filmmaker. And she’s currently focusing her attention on the Belmont-DeVillier’s area.

Just blocks from downtown Pensacola, Belmont-DeViller’s is considered a historic, predominately black neighborhood. Beginning in the late 1800s, the area was home to a burgeoning minority business community. This trend only increased when the South’s Jim Crow laws pushed more African-Americans into the neighborhood.

Earlier, before a stroll around the neighborhood, Reshard couldn’t stop talking about Belmont-DeVilliers. She was very excited about its history and all the changes and its current outlook.

“And now Blue Dot is staying open until 4 o’clock!” she buzzes.

Reshard’s office is on the top floor of the old Escambia Furniture Store. It’s an old, cavernously open structure on the corner of Belmont and DeVillier’s streets.

The building used to serve as a furnishings store. The owner, George B. Green, was a big deal in the neighborhood. Booker T. Washington made mention of the businessman in his 1907 book “The Negro in Business.”

“People said this was the place to buy your furniture,” Reshard said, sitting behind her desk. “White, black, it didn’t matter as long as your money was green.”

These days the building is open and empty. A few inhabitants are scattered among pockets of renovations. From high above the bottom floor, a skylight is framed by greenery growing down from the balconies above.

This is a good place for Reshard’s office. She used to be on the second floor, but has moved to the third. It’d be tough to find a deeper vortex into Belmont-DeVillier’s rich history. Also, she pointed out, it’s right across the street from both Blue Dot and Five Sisters Blues Cafe.

Reshard became interested in producing a documentary about the Belmont-DeVillier’s neighborhood last year. She’ll officially dive into research and production in the spring, with a release date set for the fall of 2012.

The filmmaker believes the area’s story is an important one. She views the neighborhood as representative of the African-American community’s struggles and culture over more than a century in the Pensacola area.

“Not just for African-American people,” Reshard pointed out. “But for people who wanted to build a life for themselves.”

Primarily, though, the neighborhood has served as home to Pensacola’s minority communities. As a result, walking Belmont-DeVilliers with someone as obsessed with its history as Reshard is like taking a field trip back in time.

Walking past Talbot Chapel on North Reus Street, the filmmaker pointed a couple of blocks over through the trees to Mt. Zion Church on West Wright Street.

“Churches are really important in this area,” she said “There are a few.”

Reshard pointed out various landmarks in the area as she walked by. There’s Benboe Funeral Home, the old Monk’s Gas Station and the Sunbeam Bakery.

Landmarks as well as the area’s residents will be explored in Reshard’s film. She’s hoping to convey the area’s historic significance, as well as how it has changed over the years.

The Belmont-DeViller’s area, Reshard said in her office, has always been wrapped in a “collective struggle.” That, along with its “shared vision” and sense of “shared place” are among the qualities she hopes to covey in her film.

These are also the qualities that drew the filmmaker to the area. After falling for its rich history and sense of community, Reshard took the leap and set up shop in the ripe-for-revitalization neighborhood.

“I said, ‘You know what, this is a place I want to hang my shingle, hang my hat,”’ Reshard said. “There is this struggle, everybody is trying to move forward—and who can beat the freakin’ beach?”

Though her film will be a historical documentary—“I like Ken Burns,” she said, hinting at the film’s tone—Reshard is not bashful about marketing the Belmont-DeViller’s area.
She’s hoping her work serves to attract residents and businesses to the area. She wants to see it grow.

“You know what? It’s a good place, it’s got interesting people and history,” the filmmaker said, switching into pitch-mode. “I’m not being shameless about that either.”

In between the historical landmarks and current inhabitants, the Belmont-DeVillier’s neighborhood is sprinkled with vacant lots. Reshard sees these as opportunities for growth. She tends to get excited about that—even more so when the empty lots have remnants of old foundations.

“Love it, love it, love it,” Reshard said, showing off the remaining foundation of Dr. Gus Jones’ old pharmacy.

Up the street, there was another sight that pleased the filmmaker. It was almost noon and Reshard had been talking about a burger for hours.

“Look at it,” she said, pointing to a group of people gathering across the street from her office. “That’s a beautiful sight, lining up to go into Blue Dot.”