Local man transforms the community in Fort Myers

Reporter: Lindsey Sablan
Published: Updated:
Collaboratory in the 1920s. (Credit: Collaboratory)
Collaboratory in the 1920s. (Credit: Collaboratory)

If you have not driven by the old train depot in Fort Myers lately, it has been transformed into a community hub, bringing people together in a space called the “collaboratory.” Almost an ironic name for a building that was segregated until the 1970s.

In the early 1920s, the Atlantic Coastline Railroad crossed through Downtown Fort Myers on Jackson St. Until 1971, it was segregated – even when segregation was no longer on the books.

Dunbar native, John Tobler, has fleeting memories of segregation.

“I vaguely remember my mom walking me through here years and years ago,” Tobler said.

But Tobler’s story about this place starts in 2017 when he asked to turn the old, outdoor station into its modern appearance. Part of his crew’s job was to tip down the walls and floors separating black and white riders. One person that comes to mind during that time was Johnny B. Smith, who has since passed away.

“He would often say, ‘I couldn’t stand in here when I was a young man,'” Tobler said. “He say, ‘but we’re here. We’re demoing these floors and we’re going to pour a new foundation.'”

The collaboratory kept four pieces of the segregation alive as a reminder. Bathroom doors, two for the white and two for the blacks, are joined on the inside.

“I’ve always been told if you forget from where you’ve come,” Tobler said, “it won’t be long before you repeat that again.”

The mission did not stop with Tobler. The collaboratory’s whole purpose is bringing people together in one space to create solutions to the most pressing issues in Southwest Florida.

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