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Lost black neighborhoods of Tampa left paper trail

Tampa reminds itself every day of the time it committed cultural suicide — that insane period 50 years ago when folks seemed to want to wipe out everything old. Gone in great swipes of bulldozers was much of the evidence of the two great forces that shaped modern Tampa — cigars and race. At least a fair amount of Tampa's cigar history remains. But the obliteration of historic black neighborhoods in the 1960s and '70s was so thorough that University of South Florida anthropology students sometimes go digging in them, as though they were Roman ruins.

Abby Connor, a history and genealogy specialist for the Tampa downtown library, has discovered the enormousness of the loss as she tries to help families research the lives of parents and grandparents. In the last year, she has filled two binders with fragments of documents and newspaper clippings, but nitty-gritty detail is sparse.

She found some. She found that the Palace Drug Store on Central Avenue was the only place a black could get a banana split. She found a new word — "raggedly" — as in no one went shopping on ritzy Central Avenue in raggedly shoes. She found that children who boxed in Roberts City got $7.50 dress suits. She found that even Richard Doby, prosperous patriarch of Dobyville, population 2,800, wasn't safe from the klan. He had to crawl out his back door one night when members parked on his lawn.

She found names of lost black neighborhoods, and she and librarian Tina Russo drove to see them. They stood where the Scrub was and couldn't imagine where there had been a single home.

If someone's parents came from a lost Tampa neighborhood — a place like Dobyville, or the Scrub, or the Garrison — or especially a strange, evil little place called "44 Quarters" — she offered this advice:

Become good detectives.

Best book

The library has many books on Tampa, but most offer only broad overviews of black life in the old days. Connor found a book that stood out, one so rich in detail about eight neighborhoods that it seemed to breathe life into them.

That book was unartfully titled A Study of Negro Life in Tampa. It was published in 1927. It was known as the Raper Report, named after a white researcher named Arthur Raper. But its chief researcher and actual author was a black man, Benjamin Elijah Mays.

The book tells how Tampa's black population exploded — from 4,383 in 1900 to 23,323 in 1927. Many came to escape the boll weevil that had destroyed the South's cotton industry. Like Italian and Cuban immigrants, they were drawn to Tampa by the cigar industry and a construction boom.

They settled in eight neighborhoods, most now vanished:

• West Hyde Park, including the prosperous enclave, Dobyville.

• A gambling and boxing mecca, Roberts City.

• West Palm Avenue Section on the east side of the Hillsborough River.

• Robles Pond, among the oldest black neighborhoods.

• Tampa Proper, including the mighty black economic engine, Central Avenue, and an adjacent hovel called the Scrub.

• Ybor City, intermixed with white Cubans and Afro-Cubans.

• The Garrison, a homesteaded military camp.

• College Hill. In 1927, it was the only place in Tampa where a black could buy a building lot.

The thin book by Mays and Raper bulges with details: In 1927, black Tampa boasted four undertakers, one lawyer, one pharmacist, nine doctors and 40 preachers. It had 42 churches and no parks.

The Ladies Needle Craft Circle charged 20 cents a month for dues. Doctors charged $35 to birth a baby. Midwives charged $25, but were "obsessed with ideas that too often prove detrimental to the mother and child."

Mays and Raper ran a string around the 44 houses of a jammed enclave called 44 Quarters on what is now E Columbus Drive, near Central Avenue. "The string would wrap around the Hillsborough Hotel about 1 1/3 times." The 44 homes had 3-foot back yards. Renters paid three bucks a week. The Health Department condemned the whole neighborhood.

The authors declared: "44 Quarters is the most dangerous property in Tampa."

Mays and Raper expressed pain in criticizing the only black hospital, operated by Clara Frye. "Only a few people know what Mrs. Frye has given in her efforts," they wrote. But the hospital was a firetrap. It lacked medical supervision, basic drugs and pregnancy care. Blacks accounted for 20 percent of the population and 47 percent of stillbirths.

Detective work

Rodney Kite-Powell, curator for the Tampa Bay History Center, wanted to document Dobyville. Where to start, when the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway now runs on top of it?

He began with a detective trick: a city directory. They've been around since 1870 and are troves of information.

In 1925, the city directory placed stars not only beside the names of black residents, but beside their businesses and home addresses.

Kite-Powell delineated the complete boundaries of Dobyville by following the stars.

He randomly chose a name — Henry West. He found Mr. West at 105 Oregon Ave. It wasn't his home. It was his barbershop. He had a home elsewhere. Flipping pages, Kite-Powell found that Mr. West had a wife named Daisy.

"I'll never find letters between Henry and Daisy," Kite-Powell said, "but I can go pretty deep. I can find what church was near, and surmise they were affluent, because their home was separate from their business. I can use all that as a jumping-off point."

Voices from the past

The USF library has the richest collection of everyday detail, including voices that speak from the past. They are oral histories collected from elderly blacks, started in the late '70s by activist Otis R. Anthony and continued by others. In 1994, Anthony donated his collection to the USF department of anthropology. Recordings and transcripts are offered online by the USF library's oral history program.

You hear the voice of Homer Aikens. He was born in Tampa shortly before the Depression. He survived because of someone who helped keep blacks from starving. That was Charles Vanderhorst, who called himself Charlie Moon, and ran a bolita joint called the Silver Moon.

He was a crook with a heart.

"If it hadn't been for Charlie Moon, it would had been a many dead Negroes starving to death in Tampa," Aikens said on his recording.

"The man done it on his own. He had the money, he was one of the big bolita men here, and everybody played bolita with him. He was showing his appreciation by running a soup line to help keep the people alive. Sometimes they would be a block long and sometimes longer than that.

"All the people loved Charlie Moon."

Gone to graveyards

Pat Beacham and Frances Cheeks Jennings were classmates in the 1950s at the original Blake High School. They've been researching a book on Blake to remind a forgetful Tampa that it began as a black school.

As part of their research, they came to the downtown library looking for information about the Don Thompson vocational school that was opened after World War II so black veterans could get job skills. It housed the first Blake High. They could find few traces.

One thing they've learned about black history in Tampa: "Most of the secrets," Jennings said, "are in the cemetery."

She could be right. Author Canter Brown Jr., who has written many books about Tampa and Florida, including Tampa Before the Civil War, has a favorite place to start when researching Tampa's black forefathers.

"The city of Tampa death records," he said, "are a phenomenal source."

Lost black neighborhoods of Tampa left paper trail 04/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 25, 2010 2:07pm]
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