Robert E. Wells

Robert E. Wells and his wife Elizabeth were born in the Bahamas - Robert on Cat Island and Elizabeth on Bimini. They had three daughters named Ora, Fay, and Edna. Ora had one Daughter, Juanita Wells Wright, who is the mother of Minister Bernard Wright.

In 1880 Robert Wells, a distinguished Bahamian Merchant sailor, bought land at the south end of Lake Worth in what was then north Dade County. In 1890 he built a home for his wife Elizabeth and cut a trail called Wells Avenue which would later be renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Over time, as the street developed, Wells also owned a large apartment building and a general store.

On the completion of his home, one of the first things Wells did was establish a place to worship God. On February 5, 1892 St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church was established for the residents of South Lake Worth (Boynton Beach). The congregation met at Wells’ home until 1894 when St. Paul AME church was built on the NE corner of US 1 and Boynton Beach Blvd. When the segregation laws were passed by the city in 1924, the congregation had to relocate the church to Wells Avenue. The police loaded the church building on a wagon for the move and the congregation followed crying, singing and praising God. Wells Avenue was now the main street for Boynton Colored Town and Ocean Avenue was the main street for the Town of Boynton.

Wells Property 416 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. This structure has been demolished.Wells Property 416 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. This structure has been demolished.

Wells was an educated, intelligent man who knew the value of a good education and he wanted black children to have the opportunity to learn to read, write, add and subtract. In 1896, he and other members of St. Paul AME requested a black teacher from the Dade County School Board. On September 7th, 1896 the School Board sent a black teacher from West Palm Beach and established Boynton Elementary School. The teacher stayed with the Wells family and other residents during the school session and went back to West Palm Beach when school was out. Originally, the school was a one room building on Federal Highway near 3rd Avenue. In 1925, due to segregation laws, the school was physically moved to Wells Avenue and the name of the school was changed to Boynton Colored Elementary. When the community outgrew the school it was moved to Green Street (Seacrest). After civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s, segregation was outlawed and the name was changed again to Poinciana Elementary after the many Poinciana trees at the school.

Wells knew the advantages and economic opportunities an incorporated town would bring for the residents. On April 14th, 1920 Robert E. Wells along with eight other black residents attended the signing of the documents incorporating Boynton as a Town. In 1920 segregation laws did not exist and many black residents lived along Federal Highway. They farmed the rich muck soil along the Intra-costal Waterway and planted fruit tree orchards and vegetable gardens. When segregation laws were introduced, black residents were forced to sell their homes and farms. Some families like Rev. Butler who founded St. John Missionary Baptist Church were violently attacked and forced to move from Boynton Beach Blvd. to Wells Ave. Since blacks were no longer allowed to attend City Commission meetings they created their own city council for Boynton Colored Town called the Boynton Negro Civic League. Robert E. Wells was elected the leader. The League council would petition the city to address various community issues including street paving, lighting, electricity, water, sewage, and other issues. The council also organized community celebrations like the fair, circus, Christmas, Easter, sporting events, and other holidays or celebrations. When civil rights laws were passed segregation was outlawed and the Boynton Negro Civic League was dissolved. Details of it can still be found in old City Commission records.

Robert E. Wells owned land and businesses near Federal Highway. In 1925 the city platted his property as Wells Subdivision along with the Meeks, Andrews and Meeks-Andrews Subdivisions. Although they were called subdivisions many whites referred to the black subdivisions as quarters. During slavery blacks lived in areas designated as slave quarters. Over time Wells Avenue became a thriving main street with black businesses, churches, a masonic lodge, homes, schools, entertainment venues, and more.

In recognition of the contributions of Robert E. Wells, the City of Boynton Beach has proclaimed February 7th as Robert E. Wells Day and has installed two honorary “Robert E. Wells Memorial Ave.” signs on E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Robert E. Wells Memorial Avenue SignRobert E. Wells Memorial Avenue sign

The above text has been adapted from “Who was Robert E. Wells” by Victor Norfus which was included in The Heart of Boynton Neighborhood News Letter, January – March 2015.