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Hooper: Why save Tampa boardinghouse? It's 'the right thing' to do

The rooming house at 851 E Zack St. began as a cottage built by Moses and Sarah Jackson in 1901. Black entertainers like James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles stayed here during the era of segregation.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times (2011)

The rooming house at 851 E Zack St. began as a cottage built by Moses and Sarah Jackson in 1901. Black entertainers like James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles stayed here during the era of segregation.

While some see a faltering house, Doug Belden sees a monument to history and a source of community unity.

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While a few may think we would be better served by yet another parking lot, Marvin Knight believes we'll be better served by a place that reaches into the past and touches the future.

Belden, the Hillsborough County tax collector, and Knight, a civic activist and business owner, have come together to help save the historic Jackson Rooming House, the former boardinghouse on Zack Street in downtown Tampa that has fallen into disrepair.

The two will be chairmen of a new effort to put words into action and finally begin work on the home that once played host to such luminaries as James Brown, Nat "King" Cole and Ella Fitzgerald when they came to play clubs in Tampa's once famous Central Avenue district.

"This is an opportunity for the community to come together," said Belden, motivated by recent media coverage about the house and its struggles to keep up with the demands from the city's code enforcement department. "I'm going to put every bit of my energy into saving this house. It's just about doing the right thing."

The two soon will meet with Mayor Bob Buckhorn to ignite the effort and marshal the various entities eager to see the house restored.

Belden and Knight say they will solicit the support of elected officials, contractors, foundations, business owners and everyday citizens to bring the house to its former glory and cover the estimated costs, now more than $1.5 million.

"I know if God can move mountains, he surely can give us the vision and energy to make this a reality," Knight said.

Collaboration, care and personal experience drive Belden and Knight.

For Belden, the inspiration to save the Jackson House stems from his appreciation of history, and how he was raised. As a child, he often traveled with his grandfather, the late dentist Edward Flynn, and watched how Flynn and his brother, an obstetrician, often delivered health care to people regardless of race or income.

"If you couldn't pay, you didn't have to pay," Belden said. "If it cost a hundred dollars to deliver a baby and you needed a year to pay it back, you got a year."

That sense of community drives him to stage fundraisers and projects. Knight, who owns the Oriental Fish Company in East Tampa, has been one of his partners through the years.

After learning about the plight of the Jackson House, Belden again turned to Knight to start the rally. For Knight, the connection runs deeper. He counts Sarah Jackson Robinson, the last in the Jackson family to operate the boardinghouse, as one of his mentors. Now, Knight sees today's workers pulling together to help rebuild the home and involving youth to create a new generation of mentors.

"I just know it would hurt to see another part of history (turned into) rubble when I know this city cares," Knight said.

For Willie Robinson, the descendant of the family that has owned the home for more than 100 years, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. On her deathbed, Sarah Robinson told him it would take a miracle to save the house.

Now Belden and Knight envision the miracle becoming a reality.

I see a community poised to make a defining statement about its character.

That's all I'm saying.

Hooper: Why save Tampa boardinghouse? It's 'the right thing' to do 09/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 4:29pm]
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