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  1. Hillsborough

A historic sign has the wrong name for an African-American pioneer. But much more needs fixing.

Booker Doby, 87, of Tampa, holds a photo of his mother, Dorothy Florence.  Florence was the granddaughter and Booker is the great-grandson of Richard Doby, a prominent African-American businessmen in Tampa during the early 1900s and the founder of the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
Booker Doby, 87, of Tampa, holds a photo of his mother, Dorothy Florence. Florence was the granddaughter and Booker is the great-grandson of Richard Doby, a prominent African-American businessmen in Tampa during the early 1900s and the founder of the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Aug. 2, 2019
Updated Jan. 13, 2020

TAMPA — A historic marker on the corner of Willow Avenue and Platt Street honors Dobyville, an African-American community that thrived in the early 1900s.

"The approximate historic boundaries went from Gray Street on the north to Horatio Street on the south and from Rome Avenue on the west to Willow Avenue on the east," the marker reads.

The sign also says that the neighborhood was named for its African-American developer, "Richard Cornelius Doby."

The got the name wrong. Doby's death certificate, certified by his wife in 1938, says his middle name was Curtis.

RELATED: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

But over the decades, “Cornelius” has been repeated so many times, even his descendants took it to be true.

A small mistake, maybe. But to Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP in Hillsborough County, it points up a sweeping neglect.

African-American history is often riddled with errors or holes, or ignored altogether, even when the figure is as prominent as Doby.

"This is a problem," Lewis said. "To know who we are as a community we need to know who we were."

It's a concern heightened by the recent revelation by the Tampa Bay Times that the remains of hundreds of African-Americans from Doby's time might remain under ground now occupied by warehouses along the 3700 block of Florida Ave. and a row of apartments in Robles Park Village.

That property once was Zion Cemetery, founded by Doby.

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

What's more, few had heard of the cemetery before the Times report — not a single local historian, not the churches once linked to Zion, not even Doby's family.

"It didn''t surprise me," said Fred Hearns, who chronicles Tampa's African American history. "That is common when it comes to black history. It is forgotten and overlooked."

Doby used earnings he made delivering ice and collecting trash to branch out into real estate.

In 1894, he purchased the 2.5 acres that would become Zion Cemetery and today is part of Tampa Heights.

In the early 1900s, he invested in land in the West Hyde Park neighborhood where he lived and later developed it as the community that bore his name. The school in Dobyville was built on property he donated.

Doby's 87-year-old great grandson, Booker Doby, wonders why the accomplishments have not earned his ancestor greater renown.

"I wonder, if he was white, would he have a street named for him?" Booker Doby said. "He did a lot for people."

Hearns agrees.

"Doby came to Tampa around the same time as O.H. Platt," who built Hyde Park, he said. "Everyone knows the name Platt because of Platt Street. What about Doby?"

Perhaps one reason African-American history gets overlooked, suggested Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell, is that the physical reminders have disappeared.

The Central Avenue black entertainment district, for instance, was known as the Harlem of the South — akin to Seventh Avenue in the Latin district that's still preserved as Ybor City. In the 1970s, Central Avenue was razed and today it's a downtown park.

People might know of Central Avenue, Kite-Powell said, but it doesn't remain a part of their lives in the way Ybor City does.

During its heyday in the 1920s, Dobyville was home to some 10 percent of the city's African American community. Construction of the interstate in the 1970s obliterated all but a few blocks of the neighborhood.

"Some call it regentrification," the NAACP's Lewis said. "I say our history has been whitewashed away."

Kite-Powell noted that beloved white neighborhoods were leveled, too, but adding to the concern among African-Americans is an absence of records about what came before.

History was written from the 1920s to the 1950s by those "who did not focus on the black community," Kite-Powell said.

Photographs also are scarce.

No photos of Doby have been found, for example. The reason may be that even well-to-do African-Americans didn't have access to cameras, Kite-Powell said, or maybe the Florida climate made saving them prohibitive.

Also, in the early 1900s, millions of African-Americans left the south in what has been called "The Great Migration." With them went their stories.

Still, Doby's family remained. So why the mixup over a fact as basic as his name?

"I have no idea," grandson Booker Doby said. "I have always been told his middle name was Cornelius so that is what I believed. Someone got it wrong once, I guess. It went public and stuck."

Doby sold Zion Cemetery to an African-American company in 1907, but by the 1920s, it was owned by white developers.

It might seem that establishing the premiere local African-American cemetery of the time would rate as an accomplishment passed down through generations of Dobys.

But historian Hearns suggested that if something shady happened there — looking the other way, for example, in favor of development during times when blacks were seen as second-class citizens — no one may have wanted to talk about it.

"There were a lot of injustices they couldn't do anything about so they preferred to forget," Hearns said, and history was lost.

Still, Hearns said, Tampa is making strides.

One example: A bridge over the Hillsborough River downtown was named in 1917 for Fortune Taylor, a freed slave who owned 30 acres near the area after the Civil War. What's more, nine of the 30 busts of historic figures along downtown Tampa's Riverwalk honor African-Americans. Among them are civil rights activists Moses White and Blythe Andrews.

Hearns hopes to see a local African-American history museum some day.

"Every major city should have one," he said.

For his part, Hearns is in search of a lost historic site — a slave pen that was located somewhere in today's Tampa Heights.

Slaves who escaped plantations in neighboring states came to Florida to hide among the Seminoles, he said. In the 1830s, the U.S. government rounded them up and them in Tampa for shipment and sale in New Orleans, Hearns has learned.

"Few have ever heard of this sad chapter," Hearns said. "I want mark to the location so what happened is not forgotten.

"Lost history can be found. We just have to keep looking."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.