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Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. part of Tampa home's lore


If this house could only talk, the stories it could tell. Stories of Ella Fitzgerald picking out notes to A Tisket a Tasket on a piano in the parlor. Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., eating a sandwich in the kitchen after giving a pep talk to Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement. It could tell of Tampa's hub of black-owned businesses burgeoning on Central Avenue during segregation and then falling to urban renewal in the 1970s.

Instead, it's Willie Robinson Jr. who tells the tales. He sits in an old red slider on the front porch at 851 E Zack St. — the house his grandparents built.

He owns the place, but no one lives here anymore, he says.

Rain pours through patches in the roof. The floors slope from a century of settling. Robinson fears he may lose the house because it's falling apart. City code violations are pending.

And that would be a shame. He dreams of restoring this piece of Tampa's black history and turning it into a home for veterans.

"We have nothing left to identify ourselves with," said Robinson, 63. "But this house, it still has life in it," he said.

• • •

The Jackson House, as it's known, was in dire need when Robinson inherited it from his mother, Sarah Jackson, in 2006. He sought, and received a designation from the National Register of Historic Places and the city's local landmark designation.

Yet he has no money for repairs. Sitting empty, the city issued code violations for trees and bushes growing alongside, a sagging roof, aluminum siding and peeling paint.

"We want to see it brought up to minimal standards," said Ron Vila, a city historic preservation specialist.

Four months ago, Bracken Engineering stepped in, offering to manage the restoration as a pro bono project. But restoring the Jackson House could take years and may cost half a million dollars, said Matthew Depin, a project engineer. His company can't do it alone. Plans are to start with a lead and asbestos abatement study and a structural evaluation.

Workers need to put up a temporary waterproof covering to keep out rain. Robinson and Bracken staff are seeking a contractor to donate time and material.

"We realized the house was in danger and we couldn't bare to see the house be knocked down," said Depin. Some think it may be the last freestanding privately held residential structure downtown.

Saturday, they will start removing trees to comply with code enforcement after a short groundbreaking ceremony, touting what they hope will become a successful restoration.

• • •

A breeze wafts across the porch and cools Robinson on a recent day. It reminds him of his youth, when his mother would send him out here to do his homework, telling him the "fresh air would stimulate his brain."

He brings scrapbooks and framed pictures of relatives from inside where a long hall stretches to the back kitchen. Just inside the door, the mail table stood, he remembers. The front room to the right hosted special guests.

His mother told him names and stories. He doesn't remember everything. He shares what he does.

His grandfather Moses Jackson came to town in 1899, bought a piece of land south of Central Avenue and built the first six rooms of his home, using a handsaw.

He married Sarah 10 years later and soon after, the Tampa Union Station opened in view of their home. People poured off trains and the young couple saw opportunity. They opened their doors to black travelers, military men, railroad and ship workers, and began growing their home into a proper boarding house.

Soon it had an upstairs and 24 rooms and the Jacksons had four daughters to help run the business. Travelers paid 75 cents a night and got breakfast and dinner. It provided refuge primarily to black working men, but also visiting notables, such as Ella Fizgerald, James Brown, Count Basie, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, the Ink Spots and Ray Charles.

Moses' plan was for his wife, who had lived in slavery, and daughters to run the boarding house so they wouldn't have to work in a white man's kitchen.

He and Sarah ran a tight ship, Robinson said. At 9 p.m., they walked through the house carrying a lantern telling boarders "lights out." Guests had to obey rules or leave.

When Moses died in 1929, Sarah continued to run the house, and took in laundry, washing, starching and ironing. She also ran a cab service and took her daughters to women's rallies.

After Sarah died in 1937, the house eventually went to her youngest daughter, also named Sarah.

The younger Sarah married Willie Robinson. In Tampa, they opened a beauty and barber shop, where Willie specialized in straightening hair. His customers included Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, customers who then stayed at the boarding house. On one of the two pianos inside, Sarah told her son, Ella Fitzgerald wrote A Tisket a Tasket.

When soldiers from MacDill Air Force Base imbibed too much on Central Avenue, they could stay in the boarding house where officers would not consider them AWOL.

The Robinsons had one child: Willie Robinson Jr. They set high standards, giving him a job at 5 of cleaning 10 rooms in the house.

"I had a chalk line to walk," Robinson says.

It was a prominent neighborhood then, with business owners and doctors living on the street.

He remembers shaking hands with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he was about 13, in the Jackson House kitchen. He remembers a nightclub across the street with a pool hall and a white-owned hotel.

Then came Urban Renewal in the early 1960s. The city bulldozed the Central Avenue neighborhood and changed zoning to commercial.

"Mama would not sell," Robinson said.

He cared for her as her health failed. She planned her own funeral. She had run the boarding house for 60 years and she gave him one last task: to preserve the family's history.

It was 2006 and she was 89 when she died in the house where she had always lived, in the same room where she was born.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.

. Fast facts

To learn more:

A short groundbreaking ceremony takes place at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Jackson House, 851 E Zack St. Restoration work, including tree and shrub removal, will begin following brief speeches on the history of the Jackson House. Visitors will not be permitted to enter the house. To donate funds or services to the effort, call Bracken Engineering at (813)243-4251.

Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. part of Tampa home's lore 08/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 3, 2011 6:43pm]
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