Tampa moves to put freed slave Fortune Taylor's name back on historic bridge

The Madam Fortune Taylor Bridge, named after a former slave and businesswoman who amassed 33 acres on the east bank of the Hillsborough River after the Civil War.
The Madam Fortune Taylor Bridge, named after a former slave and businesswoman who amassed 33 acres on the east bank of the Hillsborough River after the Civil War.
Published Oct. 19, 2017

TAMPA — City Hall has agreed to return a long-lost honor to the memory of Fortune Taylor, a freed slave who amassed more than 30 acres near downtown Tampa after the Civil War.

"A woman who history has forgotten," said resident Gloria Jean Royster, who encouraged the City Council to restore Taylor's name to what is now the Laurel Street bridge.

In response, the council voted Thursday to take down two signs along the Riverwalk that identify the 91-year-old bridge as the Laurel Street bridge.

In their place will go two signs naming the bridge as the Fortune Taylor Bridge. Council members said someone also should put up a historical marker telling Taylor's story.

A former slave, Fortune Taylor ran a successful business selling baked goods and married her longtime partner, Benjamin Taylor, in 1866. A woman with presence, she was known to neighbors as Madame Fortune Taylor.

Historical accounts are unclear how she ended up with the title to 33 acres on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River, though one possibility is that the land might have been confiscated from the Confederacy and deeded to her during Reconstruction.

In 1892, Hugh McFarlane, a lawyer and a founder of West Tampa, struck an agreement with Taylor to build a bridge connecting West Tampa to the east side of the river.

The bridge not only was a key link to West Tampa's cigar factories, but has been seen as a symbolic connection between white and Hispanic residents in West Tampa and black residents to the east.

At some point, the city gained title to Taylor's land, and neighbors arranged to have Fortune Street named in her honor.

In 1967, however, the construction of Interstate 275 caused the realignment of streets that included Fortune Street, and the bridge ended up along Laurel Street, for which is has since been named.

Council member Frank Reddick said the issue was not renaming a bridge, but restoring an honor.

"Someone stole that from her," he said.

The council did not move to rename Laurel Street — a change with implications for 911 emergencies — but merely to put Taylor's name on signs posted along the Riverwalk.

"It's historical," council member Guido Maniscalco said, "without having to complicate the situation."

Tampa pegs Irma costs at $7.6 million

The council also voted to put $7.6 million into a fund earmarked to pay for cleanup, fuel and other expenses related to Hurricane Irma, but city officials hope most of the money is reimbursed.

Generally, officials said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides reimbursement for 75 percent of such expenses and the state of Florida reimburses 12.5 percent. Tampa would have to cover the rest.

The expenses include $3.56 million for outside contractors, $3 million for fuel, and $1 million for infrastructure repair.

The city has two private contractors picking up storm debris alongside parks department and solid waste trucks.

As of Wednesday, those crews had hauled away more than 141,000 cubic yards of branches and had removed about 6,700 storm-caused hazards, mostly branches left hanging in trees. They had nearly 34,000 cubic yards of debris left to pick up. On Tuesday, the city began a second pass through the city to pick up other debris such as sections of fence blown down by the storm.

The City Council's vote came a day after the Hillsborough County Commission voted to spend $17 million from the county's Catastrophic Disaster Recovery Fund to remove debris left by Hurricane Irma and fix damaged facilities. Of that, $14 million is expected to go toward debris removal.

Settlement approved in industrial fatality

With no discussion, the council approved paying $200,000 to the family of a truck driver crushed to death last December by a front-end loader operated by a city employee at a city facility.

Pablo R. Femenias, 52, who lived in Town 'N Country, died Dec. 28. That morning, he had just picked up a load of dirt and debris from a city loading station next to Tampa's advanced wastewater treatment plant. He parked the truck about 40 feet behind the spot where a front-end loader was operating and got out to use a shovel to clean up the outside of his truck.

City utility technician Gregory N. Robinson, then 46, backed up the front end loader, pinning Femenias between the loader and the truck. He told police that he had looked around but did not see Femenias, who he thought might be in the truck. Police ruled Femenias' death to be an accident. Robinson was fired in March in connection with being charged with DUI after a crash in Brandon two days after the accident.

Contact Richard Danielson at or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times