Gay History: An Interview with the Founder of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives

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Mark N. Silber

Mark N. Silber is an openly gay man who grew up in South Florida and, in 1973, founded the Stonewall Library, which is now known as the Stonewall National Museum & Archives.

“I always stop here when I’m in South Florida,” he said during an interview at the archives. “This time I’m here for my 40th high school reunion at Nova High School in Boca.  It’s hard to believe it’s been that long.”

Currently living in Philadelphia, Silber was born in Queens, NY and moved with his family to Hollywood, Fla when he was eight.

“My parents wanted to raise their three kids in what they thought would be a more wholesome environment than Queens,” he said. “An aunt was living in Hollywood so they decided to come down here and settle in.”

After Nova High, Silber matriculated at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton earning a degree in anthropology.  When he realized that anthropology didn’t offer a lot of real life opportunities he took his father’s advice and studied gemology.

As a certified gemologist, he has dealt in fine jewelry for many years including spending several years as manager of the jewelry shop aboard the Queen Elizabeth II.

“That was an amazing experience,” he said, his eyes lighting up.  “I was part of the captain’s cadre and got to sit at his table so I met all kinds of important people from theater, politics, and business from around the world.”

Silber and some friends from FAU began gathering books for the Stonewall Library in 1973 largely through donations of volumes from their own libraries.  The first collection was housed in a spare room in Silber’s parents’ home in Hollywood.  It stayed there for almost 10 years when SunShine Cathedral MCC, which at the time was on SW 27th Street in Fort Lauderdale, offered to house the growing collection in a classroom on the church campus.

“We needed a public place where people could come and read or do research,” he said. “My parents’ home just didn’t make it so we were lucky to get space at the MCC.”

In 1984, Silber and his boyfriend at the time both got jobs in New York City. They were eager to experience life in one of the world’s cultural capitals so they packed up and left the library in willing hands.

“I wasn’t worried about the library when I left South Florida,” Silber said. “I knew the people who succeeded me were committed to keeping alive our history and culture and judging by what we see today, I was right”

“Remember,” he went on.  “South Florida has an amazing history with gay rights even before Anita Bryant started spreading her poison.  Miami was one of the first places that gave gays civil protections until Bryant got them overturned.”

Today Silber is a landlord in a historical neighborhood in Philadelphia and an active member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides and the University City Historical Society.

“I’m thrilled by the growth of this place,” he said.  “They have over 21,000 books and more than 7,000 artifacts. It’s amazing.”

“But I have to say that I am worried about the generations of gay kids who are coming behind us,” he added with a note of distress in his voice. “They do not know their history nor what it took for gay men and women to lay the groundwork that lets them enjoy as much freedom as they have today.  They don’t know about being arrested or assaulted or even being murdered just because you looked different. And as far as we’ve come, there’s still so much to do. So I applaud the Stonewall National Museum & Archives, as it’s currently known, for their efforts to make their resources more available to more people.”

The Stonewall National Museum and Archives is located at 1300 East Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale. Hours of operation are Monday to Friday from 11 am to 8 pm and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Closed on Sunday.  For additional information call 954-763-8565 or visit the website at www.stonewallnationalmuseum.org.


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