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1900s house holds history for blacks

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Drive down Zack Street, past the office high-rises and government buildings, and there it sits near Union Station: Jackson House, a two-story yellow wooden house with a red rail porch.

In the early 1900s, during segregation, this house was the place many blacks stayed when they were barred from the whites-only hotels. Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and James Brown all made stops. Music used to flow from the downstairs parlor. Big buses parked in the back.

Today, the family who owns the house hopes it finds a place in Tampa's history books. They want the house to be given a historic designation. A public hearing before the Historic Preservation Commission is planned for Sept. 9 at 9 a.m. at Tampa City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd.

Sarah (Jackson) Robinson, 86, who was born at Jackson House and still lives there, plans to attend. So does Johnnie Saunders, 75, Sarah Robinson's niece, who grew up in the home and remembers the entertainers who trod through.

"We thought it was time now they took notice of us," Saunders said.

Jackson House is the only remaining building from the thriving black community of the early 1900s, which was demolished in the 1970s when Interstate 275 was built.

"I wish the walls could talk," said Fred Hearns, the co-chairman of the city's Black History Committee.

Jackson House dates to about 1901. A city map from 1905 labeled it the "Jackson House (Negro Boarding)."

Back then, Zack Street was a dirt road.

The house was built by Moses Jackson, who helped lay the original trolley tracks in Tampa. He constructed the home with handsaws.

At first, the house was a small, three-room cottage for the Jackson family.

But its location was ideal for a business _ a rooming house.

Train tracks and a bus terminal were nearby. It was about 2 miles from Central Avenue, the main vein of black businesses and clubs.

And so, Moses Jackson added on to the house from 1903 to 1905, making it two stories with stairs in the back. He built a front porch upstairs and downstairs and added rooms in the back. In all, it had 24 rooms and two bathrooms.

His wife, Sarah Jackson, ran it.

At a time when blacks were denied entrance to public places and had to drink out of their own water fountain, Sarah Jackson was strong and independent.

She started a taxi company for black people _ Jackson Cab Co.

In the back yard of her home, she also washed, starched and ironed white shirts for travelers who stayed in the big hotels downtown.

Saunders, who is leading the cause to preserve Jackson House, was a little girl then and remembers helping out. She also remembers the hustle of the house _ the player piano in the parlor and the dancing that seemed to go on at all hours.

She recalls legendary Hi-De-Ho man, Cab Calloway, coming through in the 1930s. A New York Harlem favorite, he was on tour and made a stop in Tampa, playing at the Apollo on Central Avenue. A lot of white people wanted to see him, too, said Saunders, and a section was roped off at the upstairs club to accommodate them.

When Calloway finished, everyone wanted an autograph. Calloway rushed to his car, to Jackson House, to escape the mob.

"I remember him running through the hall to get to his bus in the back," said Saunders, who was 7 at the time.

Chick Webb, drummer and consummate showman for the Chick Webb Orchestra, also made a stop at the house, she said.

He came with Ella Fitzgerald, whom he mentored. She was a teenager but already famous.

Another celebrity guest was Silas Green, who introduced himself proudly as "Silas Green from New Orleans," said Sarah Robinson.

He had a team of showgirls, Robinson said, and traveled by train.

Jackson House didn't just cater to entertainers. Porters who worked on the trains stayed there when they would stop over for the night. So did preachers from Baptist conventions.

Most patrons were black. But not all.

Once, a Jewish soldier came knocking, said Saunders. It was during World War II, when cities enforced curfews, she said. He missed his bus to MacDill Air Force Base and asked to stay the night at the rooming house.

"We didn't want to take him in because he was white and we knew the rules," Saunders said.

The "unwritten society rules."

He insisted, saying he needed a place for the night "so we allowed him to sleep over that night," she said.

But there was a condition: "He had to get up early the next morning and leave."

Jackson House was strictly a rooming house. It didn't serve meals to guests. Rooms went for $2 a week in the 1930s and 1940s. Guests stayed upstairs.

The Jackson family lived downstairs.

Moses Jackson died in 1929. Sarah Jackson, who had six children, died in 1937.

The house was passed on among the Jackson daughters. First to Ora Dee (Johnnie Saunders is her daughter), then Josephine, then, finally, Sarah, who was named after her mother.

She took over in the mid 1940s and ran it for almost six decades.

Today, Sarah Robinson _ her married name _ still lives in the house with her son, Willie Robinson, 55, and a friend.

The home ceased taking guests in 1989.

Today, Jackson House isn't in pristine condition.

Burglar bars cover the doors and windows. The floors are uneven. The house still has its original tile fireplaces, flooring and interior woodwork.

Something else remains: stories.

Saunders and Robinson sat on the red rail porch telling stories of the house last week, laughing and smiling about old times.

It has always been Sarah Robinson's intention to have the house designated a historic landmark.

But the wheels didn't start turning until three years ago, when Saunders started researching the history of the house.

It has been tough. There was a newspaper for the black community during the early 1900s, but it didn't start keeping files until the late 1940s.

There is no photo of the home in the extensive Burgert Brothers photographic collection, which showed Tampa's growth in the early 1900s, Saunders said. So there are no photos of the entertainers who came through.

Saunders, who lives in Riverview, is not surprised.

"You have to live it to know it," she said.

The family, although well-to-do, didn't own a camera in those days.

"We had the necessities of life, but a camera was a luxury," she said.

The meeting before the Historic Preservation Commission is the first public hearing on the issue.

If it is designated historic, then the family can apply for government assistance to restore it to its original luster.

It also means that it cannot be demolished without going through a review board.

This is most important to Saunders.

"We don't want it ever to be torn down," she said.

_ Babita Persaud can be reached at 226-3322 or persaudsptimes.com.

Johnnie Saunders, 75, left, and Sarah Robinson, 86, right, are trying to get a historic designation for Jackson House in Tampa.

Moses Jackson built the home as a cottage for his family. Between 1903 and 1905 he added a second story and two porches.

Jackson House was run by Sarah Robinson's mother, Sarah Jackson, who had six children and died in 1937.