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Keeping democracy accountable and history alive: Tampa celebrates its archives

Historian Fred Hearns launched an African-American history walking tour and helped start the archival collection at the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Library in Tampa. [Times (2018)}
Published Jul. 10

From Civil War artifacts to handwritten city council minutes to body parts that were evidence in cases, the archives of Tampa contain deep troves of the city's history.

The City of Tampa will be celebrating Archives Awareness Week from July 14 to July 20, the week of the city's 132nd birthday, with activities scheduled throughout the week. Archive Awareness Week has been celebrated in the city since 1992, five years after the city established itself as the first municipal archive in the state of Florida.

"It really tells the story of Tampa," said Jennifer Dietz, the city's archive and records manager.

The city will partner with USF Libraries, the Hillsborough County Public Library System, the Tampa Bay History Center, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Ybor City museum society, Henry B. Plant Museum and Sacred Heart Catholic Church, each of which houses pieces of the city's archival record.

Andy Huse, a special collections librarian at USF, will give a presentation Monday about Tampa during the Prohibition era. He said many people don't recognize the value of archives.

"Records is one of the ways we can make democracy accountable,"Huse said. "If there are not records, there's no way of doing that."

While Huse said many joke about Tampa's drinking and gambling during Prohibition, an often forgotten part of the tale is the city's corrupt mayoral elections and sullied government.

READ MORE: Tampa Infamous for Corrupt Elections

"It sounds like a lot of fun, but there are a lot of downsides to it," he said. "Democracy suffered in this town."

The archives, however, fill in the rest of the story.

The USF Special Collections Library houses several community-based groups' records, from the Tampa Chapter of the NAACP to the League of Women Voters and Ybor City's Cuban and Italian clubs.

Many records, he said, are used for a completely different purpose than their original intent.

The USF Library houses Sanborn fire maps, binders full of maps showing the building material used for each structure on every block of Tampa. They were initially used to assess threats for fire insurance, but now are a portal to understanding the urban landscape of the city 100 years ago.

Tom Scherberger, director of communications for the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court, said the clerk's office keeps records dating back to the early 1800s, even some they're not required to preserve by law.

"The records gathered together tell the story of Hillsborough County and Tampa," he said. "You lose that, you lose the ability to understand your history."

Scherberger said he recently came across the marriage license of Fortune Taylor while assisting someone writing a book. Taylor, for whom the Fortune Taylor bridge is named, was a Hernando County slave who bought more than 30 acres of land in downtown Tampa with her husband, after they gained their freedom. Scherberger discovered it was one of the first marriages between freed slaves in the county after the Civil War ended.

READ MORE: Tampa moves to put freed slave Fortune Taylor's name back on bridge

"These kinds of records are the building blocks of history," he said. "It's like a puzzle. You can't see the whole picture until you start piecing these together."

Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank said their office stores millions of documents, from titles and liens to marriage licenses and body parts that were evidence in criminal cases.

"When I talk to new employees, I try to tell them we really have everything between birth and death," she said. "I think people should have comfort in the knowledge that if they lose a piece of paper, if it's important, it's probably in our archives."

One of the biggest gaps in archives, however, lies in communities of color, said historian Fred Hearns. He launched an African-American history walking tour and helped start the archival collection at the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Library.

"They're missing in communities of color because in so many cases it was not people of color keeping the records and recording the stories of what was happening in this area," he said.

The dangers of these missing records, he said, can be seen in instances such as the forgotten Zion Cemetery.

READ MORE: What happened to Zion Cemetery?

"How many more lost cemeteries and lost history is there to be recovered?" Hearns said. "With all the construction going on, we're probably going to have more surprises along the way. Our archives are critically important, not just to archaeologists and people interested in writing."

Hearns will present at an event next week about a football game in 1969, when the University of Tampa, which then had a football team, played Florida A&M University, in what is believed to be the first interracial college football game played in the South.

Hearns covered the game as a reporter for the Florida Sentinel Bulletin and recently dug through newspaper archives to recall its story.

Huse said he hopes increased awareness from the public about archives will lead people to come forth with artifacts and documents inherited from their relatives that might be useful to fill in historical gaps.

"Some of the most important collections are just one foot away from the dumpster," he said.

A list of the week's programs and exhibits can be found at https://bit.ly/32hyrrc.

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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