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USF grad students help effort to save Tampa house integral to black entrepreneurial movement

As a child living in Central Park Village, Abney Henderson never realized the significance of the old, two-story boardinghouse a few blocks away. No one talked about the Jackson House being a refuge for Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and other black musicians, who traveled to Tampa to perform on the "Chitlin' Circuit'' but weren't allowed to stay in the whites-only hotels. Or that the house served as a catalyst for other black-owned businesses along Central Avenue and has remained in the hands of the same family for more than 100 years.

It wasn't until Henderson, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, started researching the Jackson House that she came to fully appreciate its place in history.

Now the Tampa native wants to help save the building, which needs major repairs, and its legacy of empowerment that could disappear with the wrecking ball.

"The Jackson House was a moment in time,'' said Henderson, 26, who participated recently on a black history walking tour in downtown Tampa.

It marked the country's racial divide while serving as an example of how black people could support themselves — something that many people, black or white, didn't think was possible, she said.

"The Jackson House shows how far we have come,'' Henderson said. But as the building edges into decline, it stands as a sober reminder of "how far we still need to go,'' she added.

Together with fellow graduate student Brandy Langley, Henderson hopes to raise community awareness and the nearly $1 million needed to restore the dilapidated structure at 851 Zack St.

City code inspectors have called for repairs to the 24-room house, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and Florida's Black Heritage Trail.

Those distinctions, however, haven't helped to bring in the estimated $848,000 needed to fix a sloping second-story porch and waterlogged roof.

Third-generation owner Willie Robinson, who took over the home after his mother, Sarah Jackson Robinson, died in 2006, has since started the Jackson House Preservation Foundation.

He's working on making the organization a nonprofit and, eventually, turning the Jackson House into a home for veterans in honor of his Uncle Willie Hitchens, who served in World War I.

With assistance from Bracken Engineering of Tampa, the foundation has developed a three-year plan to check for and remove asbestos and lead paint, demolish the back screened-in porch and replace the roof.

It's a bit of a gamble, Robinson said, but the timing seems right as the city looks to revitalize Zack Street, once a gateway to a vibrant black business district that mostly was razed during urban renewal in the 1960s.

The Jackson House also stands near the site of the new Encore project, a salute to the black music roots of Central Avenue, with an ambitious plan for residential and commercial buildings.

Project officials are calling one of the buildings, which would house seniors, the Ella, for singer Ella Fitzgerald. But there would not have been an Ella in Tampa without the Jackson House, said Langley, 22, of Ohio.

"This is the last building standing that is connected to Central Avenue and that era,'' she said. "It would just be a shame to the black community to lose their connection.''

Langley and Henderson grew passionate about the cause after meeting Willie Robinson in one of their classes in Africana studies led by Cheryl Rodriguez.

The idea was for students to come up with research projects that benefited the community, said Rodriguez, a Tampa native whose father had a law office on Central Avenue during its heyday.

The Jackson House was a perfect subject.

"It marks a history of entrepreneurship, of self-determination, of self-help,'' Rodriguez said. "All of this is what kept the community alive.''

Her two students reached out to prominent black leaders, including state Rep. Betty Reed, Pastor James Favorite of Beulah Baptist Church and local historian Fred Hearns.

Next to little monetary support, the biggest obstacle to preserving the building is its lack of relevance to young people, Hearns told Langley.

"The older generation hasn't educated the younger generation about the importance of the house,'' he said.

Until now.

Langley and Henderson plan to host fundraising events in the coming months where they will share the story of the Jackson House, especially with children.

"It's not just black history,'' Henderson said. "It's Tampa's history.''

About the house

To learn more about the Jackson House, go to jacksonroominghouse.com.

USF grad students help effort to save Tampa house integral to black entrepreneurial movement 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 3:30am]

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