As bridges go, it's not the stately Sunshine Skyway, the bustling Howard Frankland or even much of a place to fish like the Gandy Bridge used to be.
It is a gray and red weathered drawbridge tucked behind downtown on Laurel Street on the Hillsborough River. Its front pilings are marked by colorful graffiti from college rowers.
But the modest Laurel Street Bridge has a secret identity, a past that one group wants to dust off as the city promotes the surrounding Riverwalk project.
It used to be called the Fortune Street Bridge, named after Fortune Taylor, a former slave who received the homestead title to 33 acres on the east side of the Hillsborough River in 1875.
In 1967, the construction of Interstate 275 through downtown and West Tampa disrupted many streets, including the bridge, and its name was switched to the Laurel Street Bridge.
"We just think that since the city is building the Riverwalk, and the city is highlighting its history, well the history needs to be accurate," said Fred Hearns, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.
History books say Fortune Taylor was a successful businesswoman who sold baked goods. Because she was free, she was able to marry her longtime partner, Benjamin Taylor, in 1866. It's unclear how she obtained the land on the east bank of the Hillsborough, though Hearns said it may have come during Reconstruction from land confiscated from the Confederacy.
Later, the city gained ownership of her land. Her white neighbors, who called her Madame Fortune Taylor, renamed Fortune Street in her honor, according to the book Southern Discomfort: Women's Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s.
Although her name has been erased from the bridge, Taylor is still recognized on a short sliver of roadway known as Fortune Street between Doyle Carlton and N Ashley drives.
But it's the bridge that Hearns says should carry her name because it holds more important significance to Tampa.
In 1892, Hugh McFarlane, a lawyer considered a founder of West Tampa, made an agreement with Taylor to build a bridge to connect West Tampa to east Tampa.
The bridge was a huge help to cigar factories that had sprung up in West Tampa, but it also served as a symbolic racial link between whites and Hispanics on the west side and blacks on the east.
"That name is a part of Tampa's history, not just African-American history," Hearns said, "everybody walked across that bridge."
Hearns' group has asked the city to restore the bridge's old name as part of the $40-million Riverwalk project. The 2.2-mile waterside walkway will someday link the Channel District to Tampa Heights along Garrison Channel and the Hillsborough River. It will also go under the Laurel Street Bridge.
The walkway includes signs and historical markers highlighting Tampa history, and Hearns wants Taylor's contributions noted, too.
But when his group asked the city for a name change, the request was denied because the city wants to keep the name of the bridge and Laurel Street consistent.
"We weren't supportive of that because we felt that it would cause driver confusion," Tampa transportation manager Jean Dorzback said.
The city, however, has recognized at least one other bridge name that doesn't correspond with its roadway. In 2007, Tampa rededicated the Eugene Holtsinger Bridge along N Boulevard. The bridge had been named after an early developer in 1959, but over the years people, including local officials, referred to it as the "North Boulevard Bridge," until the city formally reinstated its proper name.
Reminded of that case, Hearns wondered why the city seemed unwilling to act on the Laurel Street bridge request.
"What is the policy? Whatever it is, it ought to be consistent," he said. "But we're not going to fight City Hall if it looks like it's going to be a long, drawn-out process."
Dorzback pointed out a big difference between the Holtsinger Bridge and the Laurel Street Bridge. There's already a Fortune Street in Tampa and the bridge isn't on it. Having Fortune Street away from the Fortune Street Bridge would cause confusion, she said.
Hearns' group has asked Dorzback for a compromise. They want a historic landmark sign erected at the bridge, similar to the ones seen all over the city marking points of interest.
Dorzback said she's receptive to that idea.
"That way you don't need to involve (the state Department of Transportation) or won't take an act of Congress," Hearns said. "It'll cost a couple hundred bucks and it will make us happy."
Hearns plans to meet with city officials about the request on Feb. 23. He hopes the signs, if approved, could be in place before the Riverwalk project moves toward sprucing up areas around the bridge.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]