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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)]
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, 2019
Updated Jun. 25, 2019

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 epilogue@tampabay.com.

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


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