TAMPA — As an unwelcome guest lingered in the Gulf of Mexico early last week, in a sunbaked pocket of downtown Tampa the Jackson House continued to sag behind a chain-link fence.
The two-story structure once stood tall in a part of town dubbed the “Harlem of the South.” Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald stayed at the former boarding house. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stopped by in 1961, too.
But for years it has sat black-eyed, bruised and vacant, hosting little else other than debris, memories and fading aspiration. Its windows are smashed, its paint is peeling, and its roof is riddled with holes. Collapse seemed to be a matter of gravity picking up where neglect left off. One good wind and it would be gone.
And now Hurricane Idalia was taking aim at Florida’s coast.
What to do about the Jackson House? It was a question that had gripped residents for years, including City Council members at a meeting just the week before.
“I believe that God will not let it fall,” council member Gwen Henderson had said, unaware of the storm that would assemble days later.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Carolyn Collins, chairperson of the Jackson House Foundation, which owns the building, said at the same meeting. “It is on its way down.”
Many hoped the house, recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, would be a museum by now. The foundation had raised millions for the cause. But a dispute over two 10-foot easements had stalled restoration work. The restoration effort requires the owners of neighboring properties to provide 2,100 square feet of their land to the foundation to meet modern city fire codes.
Meanwhile, the structure continued to sigh, stuck in the jaws of bureaucracy.
At the meeting, city staff sounded optimistic that agreement was within reach. The foundation, the Tampa Bay History Center and the University of South Florida will provide an update on renovations plans in November.
But that was of little consolation to Collins the day before Idalia’s landfall, as she thought of the precious, crumbling building. Each year she hated the arrival of June, the start of hurricane season, when the house felt even more frail.
“Only my faith tells me it will be OK,” she said as the Tampa Bay region braced for hurricane-force winds and life-threatening storm surge. Between preparing her home and her mother’s for the storm, checking in with her church and her students, she didn’t have the time to swing by the house. She waited and she prayed.
Built at the turn of the 20th century at 851 E Zack St., the Jackson House was first a family home and then a rare refuge for Black visitors to Tampa during segregation. It was nestled in a neighborhood called The Scrub, which bloomed when newly-freed enslaved people built homes in a palmetto thicket. There were barber shops, hair salons and pool halls. There was dancing and music.
Then the city declared The Scrub a slum. The Tampa Tribune called it “Tampa’s greatest eyesore.” Starting in the 1950s, the community was razed to make way for a housing project, an interstate and promises of “urban renewal.”
The Jackson House endured, maintained as a private residence until 2010 but slipping into a state of disrepair. Willie Robinson Jr., whose grandparents built the home, resisted the lure of buyers. His mother gave it to him as a treasure to behold, not an asset to sell, and so he deeded it to the foundation.
Now the house sits surrounded by a sea of surface parking, ready for rescue.
Idalia spared Tampa from the worst of its wrath, though water swallowed streets in low-lying pockets and tropical storm force gusts scattered debris. By mid-week there was a citywide exhale as residents shifted from bracing for disaster to celebrating another dodged bullet.
On Wednesday afternoon, though the tide remained high and the air thick, glimpses of blue sky were beginning to peek through the clouds. As Idalia continued its march into Georgia and later the Carolinas, the Jackson House was soaked but standing.
From a second-floor window, a frayed piece of tarp waved in the wind.