The W. C. Handy Birthplace, Museum and Library, in Florence, Lauderdale County, was established to celebrate the life of musician and composer William "W. C." Handy (1873-1958), known as the "Father of the Blues." Handy himself donated the seed money to set up the museum, which now includes several buildings and houses a large collection of memorabilia, personal items, and objects relating to Handy's musical career. The museum draws more than 3,000 visitors a year.
In 1954, a new housing development sponsored by the city of Florence threatened the log cabin in which Handy was born. To save it, Handy gave to the city the $29,000 he was paid for the land on which the cabin stood to be used for future restoration of his childhood home as a museum. The cabin was carefully dismantled and the logs numbered and stored for later reassembly. Handy also bequeathed a large number of his personal possessions to the city to be used in the cabin after a suitable new location was found.
During the late 1960s, a committee was formed to begin work on the museum honoring the "Father of the Blues." The committee was led by Karl Tyree, head of the Florence Housing Authority, and included a group of men from the Florence Junior Chamber of Commerce. A site was selected at 620 West College Street, in the southwest corner of town. Work began early in 1970 on reassembling the log cabin and on constructing a museum next to the cabin to properly house and display the artifacts and tell the story of Handy's life and career. The completed structure was filled with the artifacts that the Handy family sent to Florence from their home in New York, including the upright piano on which Handy composed the "St. Louis Blues," his brass trumpet, furniture, and numerous boxes of his letters, pictures, musical compositions, personal mementos, and datebooks.
A group of local Florence women formed the Cabin Committee that same year to take on the work of furnishing the restored log cabin. Local citizens donated furnishings and other items that represented the time period during which Handy lived there as a child. The W. C. Handy Museum opened to the public on June 7, 1970. A separate building was added in 1980 to house the Black Heritage Library, which was filled with books donated to or purchased for the museum under the direction of the Cabin Committee. In 2002, an addition was constructed that included a new area for the Black Heritage Library, office space, a kitchen, and restroom as well as a community meeting room.
Originally the museum and two other historic sites were owned and financed by the City of Florence, and appointed members of the Florence Historical Board had responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the three facilities. On April 6, 1988, operational control of the museum and several other historic properties in the city were transferred under the administration of the newly created position of Director of Arts and Museums. Average attendance each year is about 3,000 visitors. Two annual events take place at or involving the museum. A large W. C. Birthday Celebration is held at the museum each November 16 with live music, birthday cake, and free admission. In addition, the W. C. Handy Music Festival takes place annually during the last week of July. The festival has been held since 1982 and now includes approximately 300 events during a ten-day period.