MELBOURNE, Florida. – Patrolled by rattlesnakes and black bears, today’s Melbourne was still lush, mosquito-infested wilderness in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Enter three freed slaves: Peter Wright, the Wright Brothers and Balaam Allen. The first settlers of the predecessor community of Crane Creek, they founded farms near the mouth of the Virgin River between 1867 and the mid-1870s, according to historians.

Brothers and Allen grew citrus fruits and co-founded the Greater Allen Chapel AME Church, Melbourne’s first house of worship. During this time, Wright became known as a “sailing postman”, 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 of South Brevard’s first black residents are “almost non-existent” and found only in scraps of evidence, noted historian Weona Cleveland in a 1988 FLORIDA TODAY article on Melbourne’s forgotten pioneers.

Now the South Brevard Concerned Citizens Committee is proposing to create a $400,000 public monument with bronze statues of Wright, Brothers and Allen atop a podium in Riverview Park, according to Partner of News 6, 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.

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“But it is equally important, especially at the local level, to recognize the people who have made an impact. And certainly those three – Captain Peter Wright, Balaam Allen and the Wright Brothers – were important to our region. And their story is virtually unknown,” Brotemarkle said.

“I think recognition is very important, especially for people who are generally underrepresented. We know a few pioneers in the area, but these three men of African descent that we haven’t heard much about,” he said.

On Tuesday evening, Melbourne City Council voiced its conceptual support for the statue project. No final decision has been made and a formal discussion will take place at a future meeting.

“These three men are Melbourne’s best-kept secret,” council member Yvonne Minus said. She suggested they receive some form of recognition, such as photos, inside City Hall.

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Mayor Paul Alfrey said he fully supports the project.

“At a time and place in our country where we are failing to respect our heritage and tearing down statues, in the city of Melbourne we respect our heritage and our founders,” Alfrey said.

The South Brevard Concerned Citizens Committee is launching a fundraising campaign, hoping to fund the project within two years.

The Riverview Park monument would also feature a 14½-foot-tall “Crane Creek Founders” arch, historic marker, circular wall, benches and landscaping. Estimated cost breakdown:

  • Figurines: $225,000

  • Foundation and wall: $60,000

  • Maintenance/replacement: $45,000

  • Permit/design/build: $30,000

  • Arch and electric/solar lights: $15,000 each

  • Irrigation and landscaping/benches: $5,000 each

Project organizer Teri Jones gave a PowerPoint presentation at the town council meeting. She said the citizens’ committee launched the website in May, sent postcards 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 take on construction or program funding,” Jones told council members.

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Last year, the South Brevard Concerned Citizens Committee oversaw the cleanup of contaminated soil during the construction of Heritage Park at Crane Creek, a four-story affordable housing complex at the west end of WH Jackson Street.

In the aftermath of the Seminole Wars, only about 300 hardy pioneers inhabited the newly 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 freedmen trio as Melbourne’s first settlers.

“Hunters had used Crane Creek as a route inland for several years before the first settlers arrived from Melbourne in the mid-1870s. The first to arrive were three black men, Peter Wright, the Wright Brothers and Balaam Allen” , says the book, which was written by Jerrell Shofner, former chair of the history department at the University of Central Florida.

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“Richard W. Goode brought his family from Chicago early in 1877, and Cornthwaite J. Hector came soon 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 states.

Various historical markers and tributes honoring the first three black pioneers are scattered across Melbourne – but their stories remain largely unknown, said Joseph McNeil, chairman of South Brevard’s Concerned Citizens Committee.

A historical marker honoring Wright stands at the Overlook Park Lookout 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 inside the house of brothers Wright and Mary 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 house of worship in 1885, according to the church’s website.

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Melbourne Village was officially established in December 1888 by voice vote among a group of 23 people. Those settlers then elected officers and agreed on a town seal depicting a pineapple plant, a crane and a saw palmetto, according to the town hall website.

In May, the non-profit 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 underway to convert the aging structure into a museum, in collaboration with Northrop Grumman.

The Greater Allen Chapel AME Church launched the Melbourne Founders Festival in 2018 to honor the Three Freedmen. The annual event features food, vendors, entertainment, dancing, arts, crafts and information booths.

At one time Wright owned much of what is now downtown Melbourne, Cleveland reported in its 1988 FLORIDA TODAY article.

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“It was said that, if the winds were not favorable, Wright would sail his sailboat up the river all night to deliver the mail on time,” Cleveland wrote.

“As he approached the port of Crane Creek, he took up a large conch, using it as a horn, to announce the arrival of the mail. For his efforts as a letter carrier in the rain, wind, heat and gales, Wright was paid $8 a month.