DELRAY BEACH – Before Atlantic Avenue filled the city with boutique shops and downtown strip malls, St. Matthews Episcopal Church stood for decades.
The Rev. Marcia Beam, 61, is the granddaughter of one of the church’s original founding fathers who emigrated from Nassau in The Bahamas to develop a church that reminded him of their own back home.
“We’re 100 years old this year,” Beam said. “And the church pretty much looks as it did originally, except for the windows.”
Beam herself was baptized and raised in the church as a child, and today serves as its ordained priest.
This rich history helped to make St. Matthew’s one of ten sites on the Historic Delray Beach Bus Tour. The tour is hosted once a month by the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History in Delray Beach.
The narrated tours are held on the fourth Saturday of each month, and last about an hour and 45 minutes.
The history-filled excursions give locals and tourists alike the opportunity to visit significant landmarks in the city from the points of view of churches and city signposts, such as Frog Alley and Historic 5th street in the city’s historically black neighborhoods, among others.
Among this mix of architecture are the remnants of the original Delray settlers who contributed to the city’s earliest development, among them Bahamian, African- American, German and other white European groups.
“Most people don’t know that one section of Delray was a bustling black business district during the time of segregation,” said Lori J. Durante, executive director and curator of the museum.
“There were black-owned hotels, doctors, dentists and general practitioners, and this was right in the middle of segregation. It’s pretty significant,” Durante said.
It’s this new perspective that gives this narrated tour a real twist on roots, giving a voice to those formerly not represented in the history books.
“The tour doesn’t focus on one aspect of history,” Durante said. “We don’t exclude or segregate one group. They all contributed in some way to the development of Delray as an area.”
Durante began her on-going research in 2004, constantly gathering and perusing archives in Michigan, from which some of the city’s first northern settlers arrived.
She also used records from the University of Florida in Gainesville to make sure she had a balanced story.
While fact-checking, she continued to tour the United States, including Washington D.C. and St. Petersburg, which she used to develop her own historic city tour.
Because of the incomplete information contained in history books, Durante had to gather the majority of the research herself.
“When we read history books today, all you hear is the contributions of the white hero,” she said. “We read about Henry Flagler and his famous railroad, but not about the black workers that brought it about.”
As a result of her efforts to include vital, but often missing background information, her tour has won various awards including Unique Travel Gem by AAA Travel Home & Away Magazine of Mid-America and, in June 2006, the Best Tour of the Town by The Palm Beacher and Gold Coast magazines.
Durante also created a timeline that trails the history of the city of Delray, which is featured on the city’s website.
The tour meets at the parking and boarding location near the new Downtown Delray Beach Library at 100 W. Atlantic Avenue. Due to increased interest and popularity, the 11 a.m. tour is full, and a new tour time at 1:45 p.m. has been added to the March 22 outing.
The fee is $10 per person for adults and senior citizens. Seat reservations are highly recommended.
For more information, please e-mail: Tour@Delray-BeachBusTours.org or call 561-243-2662. Payment is required with reservations.
Photo: The historic 1896 Train Depot built by Henry Flagler, above, is one of the sites on the Historic Delray Beach Bus Tour.