Fort Myers railroad tracks reminder of days of segregation

Reporter: Breana Ross
Published: Updated:

Many people think of train tracks as a way to travel, or even get annoyed when you have to stop at them, but for some those train tracks symbolize a history of safety and segregation.

Mrs. Marion Jackson grew up with racial divide. She looks out from the front porch of her Fort Myers home and talks of a very different city than the one she sees today.

As a born and raised native, she recalls what it was like growing up in Dunbar in the 50s and 60s, “No sidewalks, dirt road, I can remember it all.”

Mrs. Marion Jackson sits on her front porch in Fort Myers.

She also remembers a time when the railroad tracks that run through former Anderson Avenue – which became Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in 1991 – were considered by many to be a division between whites and Blacks.

“That divided us,” she said “Evans Avenue really started Dunbar coming around … All of this was segregated; all the way from Cranford Avenue, you would go over all of that. Where I live on Economy was on the other side of Martin Luther King and all that was black.”

Black people primarily stayed east of the tracks in an area called Safety Hill.

John Tobler was a young boy during that time, “I remember, you know, you just didn’t come over in this side of town, especially not at night.”

John Tobler.

Years after the Jim Crow law of segregation was outlawed, the railroad depot was still segregated, all the way into the 1970s.

Tobler, who is also the president of Tobler Construction, said, “There are stories of people that were hurt because perhaps a young kid did not know I was not able to drink from the side or go into that bathroom so it was really really trying times for people in the Dunbar community.”

But in 2017 Tobler helped rewrite the narrative. He transformed the old segregated train depot into the building we now know as the Collaboratory, a place that’s inclusive for all.

He explained, “We demoed the bathrooms where there were separate bathrooms, one for coloreds as it was called then, and white; and a part of doing the work and actually demoing that it represented a changing of the time.”

And as Mrs. Jackson looks out on her porch, she sees the change too, right in her own Dunbar neighborhood.

“In our area now, it’s white, Spanish, Black,”
 Jackson added. “I’m just proud of my community and I’m proud of Dunbar. I really am. Maybe there is room for improvement. A lot, they fight for all the time, and sometimes I just say, well it’s not as bad as it used to be.”

But as for society as a whole, there’s still room to grow.

On the east side of Dr. MLK, there used to be a lot of Black-owned shops, cafes, dry cleaners, and clothing stores.

McCollum Hall was one of the few places where both white people and Black people would go on that side of the tracks.

Old segregated train depot near downtown Fort Myers and present-day Collaboratory.

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