TAMPA — Music is not what first comes to mind when Johnnie Saunders is asked about Ray Charles and Cab Calloway.
Ray Charles “was always hungry,” Saunders, 91, said when recalling interactions with the two. Cab Calloway “scared my puppy and chased him to the front door.”
Her grandparents built downtown Tampa’s Jackson House, which provided lodging for Black travelers — including the two famed entertainers — during the era of segregation.
Saunders lived there with her family from birth until she was 18.
The Tampa resident stood outside the Jackson House at 851 E. Zack St. on Wednesday to check on its status.
The 24-room boarding house has been closed to the public since 1989.
With the help of a $1 million donation from Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, the Jackson House Foundation nonprofit that owns the structure is now converting it into a museum to be operated in partnership with the Tampa Bay History Center.
Saunders did not want to walk inside: She thought it would be physically dangerous and emotionally painful to see it in disrepair.
Wilted, splintered ceilings forced a Times reporter and photographer to duck while walking the long halls. Tiles are peeling away from the floor. The second story would not be safe for walking if not for temporary wooden floors.
“That’s not good,” Saunders said. “But they are going to try to restore as much of it as they can.”
Throughout September, a crew removed decades of trash left by trespassers, identified historic artifacts that should be temporarily removed and stabilized the structure that was at risk of collapsing during a major storm.
Now, engineers will determine the best course of action. One extreme possibility is tearing it down and rebuilding with whatever original pieces are salvageable.
“Is there anything left?” Saunders asked
She smiled at being assured that yes, there is.
The interior remains a rainbow of shades. Consecutive doors, some of which still bear room numbers, are never the same color and do not match the shade of their room. There is a green room with a pink door, a blue room with a red door.
Pieces of furniture are tagged to be taken to the Tampa Bay History Center. There is a pink swinging bench, a red chair and a metal fan.
A strip of wallpaper depicting farm scenery still lines the staircase wall and two nearby walls bear the traces of where the Jackson family dragged their fingers through still-wet stucco for decoration.
The original wooden breaker box remains at the end of the second-floor hallway and the first-floor kitchen still has a range hood.
Saunders' said her mother, Ora-Dee Jackson Turner, did not run a restaurant, but often cooked large enough meals to share with guests, such as Ray Charles. But even when the musician was staying across the bridge to be closer to a venue, Saunders laughed, he would pop by for dinner.
The boarding house was built at the turn of the 20th century by Saunders' maternal grandfather, 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.
Saunders' grandfather died before she was born in 1928. Her grandmother, Sarah Jackson, ran the boarding house where she resided with the mother and father, John Turner, who later took it over.
Music was their main source of entertainment, with guests taking turns at the first-floor pianos. One was in the living room and another in the hallway.
Ella Fitzgerald is among those who regaled the Jackson family, but her first stay began with a case of mistaken identity.
Fitzgerald’s traveling assistant was so beautiful, Saunders laughed, that they assumed she was the jazz singer.
“She was a plain woman,” Saunders said of Fitzgerald, “with a beautiful voice.”
As for Calloway, Saunders initially did not like the singer, actor and band leader because of the way he treated her dog.
“I was very upset by that,” Saunders said, but later realized, “he was just teasing.”