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Restoration of Tampa’s historic Jackson House is underway

Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway were among those who stayed in the boarding house for Black travelers.

TAMPA — As one of Tampa’s few of segregation era lodging options for Black travelers, the Jackson House at 851 E. Zack St. is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Still, since shuttering in 1989, it has fallen into such disrepair that city officials declared the structure unsafe and fenced it off.

The family owner, and later a nonprofit that took it over, struggled for decades to find the money to bring the two-story, 4,000-square-foot home up to code.

Then, last November, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik donated $1 million to the cause.

This month, that money was used to begin the long-awaited restoration of the Jackson House.

“I am excited, surprised, pleased and overly elated,” said Carolyn Collins, chair of the Jackson House Foundation nonprofit.

Related: Jeff and Penny Vinik donate $1 million for Jackson House

The 24-room boarding home will be converted into a Black history museum.

“When we committed to this project last year, Penny and I saw an opportunity to preserve an important and powerful piece of Tampa’s history,” Vinik said via email. "As we have watched the Black Lives Matter movement inspire meaningful and necessary conversation on matters of race and injustice, it has become clear efforts like saving the Jackson House are critical in telling an honest and true account of the successes, challenges, and contributions of our African American neighbors.”

Christina Barker, chief of staff for the Vinik Family Office, says the Jackson House is a long way from the finish line.

“It is not even safe to go inside right now,” she said.

A crew is currently working on phase one of the restoration, which includes removing decades of trash left by trespassers and identifying historic artifacts that should be temporarily removed.

Meanwhile, the University of South Florida’s Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections department will complete their 3D scan of the structure.

They scanned the first floor in February 2019 and are now moving on to the second floor.

Related: Laser scanning may help preserve historic Jackson House, digitally at least, before it collapses

Phase one should be complete by sometime in November, Barker said.

Engineers will then study the scans and the physical structure to determine the best plan for saving it.

“We just don’t know yet what needs to be done,” Barker said.

What is clear, Barker said, is that the project will take more than the $1 million donated by Vinik, also a member of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

“We have some old documents that said $1.5 million,” Barker said. “That does not include actually outfitting it as an exhibit.”

The City of Tampa’s proposed 2020 budget includes $100,000 for the Jackson House restoration.

The nonprofit is also hoping Hillsborough County will help them secure up to $500,000 in grants over the next few years.

“We know this will take some time to happen,” Collins said. “But it is finally happening.”

Added Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, “We are very excited to see work getting started at the Jackson House. These walls carry the stories of the many Black travelers, musicians, and legends who were once house here during the segregation era.”

Related: Willie Robinson Jr. spent much of his life hoping to save an essential piece of Tampa history

The boarding house was built at the turn of the 20th century by Moses Jackson.

He first built his family home on the site, but then came to realize the location might better serve as a place for Black travelers to stay in downtown Tampa.

It was near the Union Station train depot and the Black district of Central Avenue, known as the Harlem of the South for the popular Black musicians who performed at its nightclubs.

Among those who stayed there were James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Tampa in 1961, he made a point to visit the Jackson House.

Sarah Jackson Robinson, Jackson’s daughter, ran the boarding house after her parents died

When she died in 2006, her son Willie Robinson took on the job of preserving the Jackson House.

Eight years later, he helped form the nonprofit chaired by Collins.

Robinson died in 2019.

“I know Willie is proudly watching what is going on,” Collins said. “He is feeling it.”

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