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On the trail of black history

Danette Christie cherishes her memories as a 17-year-old majorette for the Middleton High School Tigers. But her fondest memory isn't of twirling her baton in front of football fans, but of her graduation, the last for the oldest black high school in Tampa.

In 1971, the county's desegregation effort led Middleton to become a junior high.

Middleton's history has won it the honor of being part of the state's Black Heritage Trail. Because of its history of being the oldest of only two black schools that educated black youths in Tampa, Middleton was chosen.

Department of State officials have placed 154 sites, festivals and museums on the Heritage Trail, many of them in urban areas, in a guidebook to be published early this summer.

Hillsborough's four stops are Middleton Junior High, the Museum of African American Art, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and St. Peter Claver Catholic school.

To be on the Heritage Trail, buildings must be at least 50 years old and must have retained their original architectural structure, be related to a historic event or have unusual significance. Festivals have to be annual events that display black culture.

Gary Goodwin, a State Department historian, said officials hope the booklets will enhance efforts for tourists and Floridians to find out more about the state's history.

"African Americans in Florida have contributed richly to the development of our state and nation," he said. "They give us a fuller understanding of who we are as Floridians black and white."

In Hillsborough, the sites on the Black Heritage Trail are:

Middleton High got its start in the early 1930s. Since the first black senior class graduated in 1935, the only thing that stayed the same at Middleton, 4302 N 24th St., are the gym and four other buildings. Today, students from different racial backgrounds are bused in from as far away as N Dale Mabry.

At one point, the school educated a number of students from Belmont Heights and Jackson Heights.

Museum of African American Art is one of 10 black art museums throughout the country. The Florida Endowment Fund for Education owns the Museum of African American Art, 1308 Marion St.

The downtown building is the permanent home of 140 pieces of the Barnett-Aden Collection, the oldest collection of African-American art in the United States. The oldest piece dates to 1860.

St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, 506 E Harrison St. played an important role during the civil rights movement. It provided a focus for the anti-segregation activity of Tampa's black community. The Rev. Leroy Washington Jr. says the church continues to service the community. Many civic and social groups, such as the NAACP, still meet in the downtown church.

St. Peter Claver Catholic School is the oldest black school in Hillsborough County. The two-floor brick building was built in 1926.

Principal Betoria Watson said the elementary school is 98 years old. On Feb. 2, 1894, two white nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Name order began teaching 16 black students in a Methodist church on Morgan Street.

After arsonists burned the makeshift school to the ground 10 days later, the sisters moved the school to its present location at 1203 N Nebraska Ave. The school now has 150 students in kindergarten through fifth-grade.

In 1990, a committee of nine legislators and educators met in Tallahassee on how to improve the representation of blacks and preserve their history in Florida. They came up with the Heritage Trail.

During the 1991 session of the Legislature, they gave $100,000 to the Department of State for the design, production and distribution of the guidebook.

The booklet is organized alphabetically by city and includes a brief history of blacks in Florida to give context to the sites in the guidebook.

Guidebooks will be available at Florida welcome stations, Chambers of Commerce and Visitors and Convention Bureaus, except in seven of the state's 67 counties, Goodwin said.

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