1. Florida

Willie Robinson Jr. spent much of his life hoping to save an essential piece of Tampa history

But his family home, the Jackson House, has yet to be rescued
Willie Robinson Jr., pictured here at 63, was born in the Jackson House and grew up there. Behind Robinson is the living room that once held the piano where musicians who stayed at the house would gather. [Times (2011)]
Published Jun. 25
Updated Jun. 25

Maybe you know the stories about the legends rumored to have once stayed the night at an old wooden house in downtown Tampa. They include Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Jackson House, at 851 E. Zack St., sits on the Florida Black Heritage Trail, the National Register of Historic Places and at the crossroads of history and development.

“Tampa’s historic black community was really decimated by the construction of the interstate,” said Linda Saul-Sena, a preservationist who spent 20 years on Tampa’s City Council. “This house is a rare piece of the authentic, original fabric of the community.”

For Willie Robinson, Jr., it was also home. He was born there, like his mother.

In his adult life, he hoped to save it.

Mr. Robinson died of an ongoing illness on May 26. He was 71.

Willie Robinson Jr., shown here around age 2 in his family’s living room with parents Willie Robinson Sr. and Sarah Jackson Robinson.

The Jackson House started off as a family home in the late 1800s. It was built on busy Central Avenue in the Scrub, as the neighborhood was known then.

Because the home was close to the train station, Moses Jackson, Mr. Robinson’s grandfather, saw an opportunity. He expanded the building into a 24-room boarding house.

Soon, travelers who weren’t permitted to stay at whites-only hotels began to stay there. Included in those guests, so the stories go, were famous entertainers traveling the country on what was known as the Chitlin Circuit, to venues that catered to black customers.

From the St. Petersburg Times, August 2003

After her parents’ deaths, Sarah Jackson Robinson took over running the boarding house. Her husband ran a barber shop there, she ran a taxi company.

The Jackson House was a big part of their son’s early and late years, but after graduating from George S. Middleton Senior High School, he headed to Texas to study education.

He lived and worked there, marrying and starting a family, until his father’s death in 1972. When his mother died in 2006, Mr. Robinson took on the job of preserving the Jackson House.

From the Tampa Tribune, November 2006

“I look at this house and it’s a house, but it’s a symbol of what hard work and what a family can do,” Mr. Robinson told the Tampa Tribune at a restoration kickoff in 2011.

A year later, when he started the Jackson House Foundation, Mr. Robinson told the Tribune his efforts to save the house sometimes felt like “taking two steps forward and one step back.’’

Back: In 2013, Mr. Robinson was given 30 days by the city of Tampa to stabilize the home.

Forward: That same year, a local campaign formed to save the Jackson House.

From the Tampa Tribune, September 2013

Back: In the fall of 2013, Hillsborough County’s tax collector reported that the Jackson House would have to be rebuilt from scratch. “There’s not a structural part of that building that can be saved right now,” Doug Belden told the Tampa Bay Times. “A strong wind would blow it over.”

Repairs could cost as much as $1.5 million. The property was worth $190,000.

Forward: In early 2014, members of the community rallied to save the house, including shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge.

Back: Bubba dropped his plans to buy the Jackson House and restore it. According to the Times, Clem said it fell through because the city made “outrageous demands I can’t meet.”

Forward: Teams from the Tampa Bay History Center and USF worked together to laser scan the Jackson House, which could help rebuild it or create virtual tours.

WATCH THE VIDEO: A 3D scan of the historic Jackson House

Back: The Times reported that beams installed to keep the Jackson House from falling may be deforming the walls and damaging the already fragile structure.

“We really, really, really want to save this,” said Penda King, a Jackson House Foundation board member. “We wanted to do it before, of course, in his lifetime. We’ve just got to keep pressing on to get it done.”

Mr. Robinson was a kind-hearted man, she said, soft-spoken, always smiling.

“You never heard him raise his voice,” said Carolyn Hepburn Collins, president of the Jackson House Foundation.

“He was passionate about the house and its history,” said Saul-Sena, “and he enjoyed tremendously walking people through and talking about what he remembered.”

As a preservationist, she said, she isn’t sure that house can be saved, “which is a loss for our community.”

RELATED: Nearly 400 people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

Bill Carlson worked with Mr. Robinson to save the Jackson House a few years ago, before Carlson was elected to City Council. The house, he said, tells a story of segregation.

It needs to be preserved, its story told, he said, so that it never happens again.

In early June, the Jackson House Foundation renewed a fundraising effort to raise $1.5 million to maintain and likely rebuild parts of the house where it stands, preserving the artifacts inside.

Carlson said Tampa’s new mayor, Jane Castor, and the newly elected City Council is waiting on a proposal to rally behind.

Mr. Robinson, who is survived by his daughter and two grandsons, is buried alongside his family at Memorial Park Cemetery, a short drive from home.

The Jackson House has been a precarious state for years. Still, some are hoping it can be restored. [Times file]

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about members of our community who’ve recently died? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at

Read recent Epilogues:

The Cuban Club’s eldest elder, Raul Lavin, helped save it from ruin

For more than 30 years, when Donatello opened at Thanksgiving, Guido Tiozzo was there

Gymnast Shelby Hilton’s ‘uncommon determination’ showed on the mat and off


  1. A flag supporting President Donald Trump flutters near the University of Florida's Century Tower before an Oct. 10 appearance on campus by Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. A controversy over the political nature of the event has led to calls for the impeachment of Student Body President Michael C. Murphy, who helped set it up. Courtesy of Chris Day
    A push to oust Student Body President Michael Murphy comes after an email surfaces, suggesting he worked with the Trump campaign to bring a political speech to campus.
  2. Flood-elevation requirements for permanent Florida Keys homes could mean local ‘tiny homes’ wind up with more square footage than most of the diminutive domiciles. Courtesy of Bayview Homes
    “We cannot keep building the way we always have and expect a different outcome in future disasters.”
  3. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Michael Patrick Nealey, 49, was arrested Monday morning and charged with killing Lucky Miller at a Hilton hotel.
  4. The Falcon 9 rocket sits on Kennedy Space Center's historic Pad 39A in Cape Canaveral on Thursday.[SpaceX via AP]
    The company deployed a second batch of 60 satellites for its Starlink communications constellation.
  5. Vacant land within the Italian Club Cemetery may the site of the lost College Hill Cemetery, listed in some 100 obituaries from 1896 through the 1930s. Tampa Bay Times
    Cubans and African-Americans were once buried on land that appears to be a vacant corner of the Italian Club Cemetery.
  6. Do you know what Pam Bondi is expected to focus on if she joins the White House communications team?
    How closely do you follow the Tampa Bay Times? Take our weekly quiz and find out.
  7. Two Disney employees and a former middle school assistant principal are among the 17 accused of possessing and sharing child porn. JOHN RAOUX  |  AP
    Polk County Sheriff’s Office charged more than 600 felony counts of child pornography possession to the 17.
  8. Shoppers walk into the Kmart in Kenneth City, which will close by the start of 2020. By February, Florida will only have four Kmarts left. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    What’s the future of Kmart and Sears in the Sunshine State after the latest round of closures?
  9. Reginald Ferguson, center, a resident of the Kenwood Inn in St. Petersburg, talks with Rachel Ilic, an environmental epidemiologist, left, and Fannie Vaughn, right, a nurse with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. The health team was encouraging residents to get vaccinated against hepatitis A, part of a larger effort to address an outbreak of the virus in Florida. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The effort started in Pinellas, where health department “foot teams” are knocking on doors in neighborhoods at higher risk for the virus.
  10. Archaeologist Terry Barbour excavates a bead-making site on Raleigh Island in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Barbour's team then used a drone with radar to map the entire village of 37 ring-shaped piles of oyster shells where ancient dwellers made beads out of shells. PHOTO COURTESY OF KENNETH E. SASSAMAN  |  Photo courtesy of Kenneth E. Sas
    Scientists stumbled on the site while assessing BP oil spill effects in 2010