BRANDON — The federal Works Progress Administration was charged with putting Americans back to work during the Great Depression.
The program financed the construction of schools, bridges, roads, airports and other infrastructure needs. But it also put artists back to work by bankrolling ventures such as theater groups, orchestras and murals.
Nearly a century later, the WPA-funded drawings of Brandon’s Karl Moseley can again be seen, this time online. They are now more than artwork. They are history lessons.
Moseley’s drawings provide a rare glimpse at Tampa’s long-gone pioneering Black neighborhoods, which existed during a time when photographs of Black life were rarely taken.
“All these years later, we now get to see what these places looked like through Karl Moseley’s eyes,” said Lori Collins, director of the University of South Florida’s Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections.
The works can be viewed at dhhc.lib.usf.edu/moseley. They are part of Collins’ efforts to archive and preserve the Moseley family’s Brandon homestead.
Dating to the 1880s, the 15-acre property is now located down a dirt driveway between Haverty’s Furniture Store and Portillo’s Hot Dogs on busy Brandon Boulevard. Despite offers of millions of dollars by developers over the years, the Moseleys refused to sell their property and never modernized the buildings’ exteriors. Historians call it a time capsule of Hillsborough County’s pioneering years.
The last of the Moseleys died in August and the property was deeded to a trust charged with maintaining its historic look.
Collins and her USF team are making the homestead accessible to the public by 3D scanning the structures and all that remains inside. Scans are now online.
Among their discoveries was a photo album containing 28 drawings from the 1930s. Karl Moseley created the images of Tampa for the WPA.
“He had a fascination with places like the docks, the waterfront and railroads, and that is evident in his pictures,” Collins said.
There are drawings of trains, the Platt Street Bridge, the bridge for Seddon Island — now Harbour Island — and freighters unloading cargo.
Still, Collins said, Moseley seemed most interested in Black neighborhoods and their everyday life.
Featured in his drawings are depictions of two historic Black neighborhoods that have since been demolished: the Scrub, which was located where the downtown Encore housing complex now stands, and the Garrison, which was located in what today is known as downtown’s Channel District.
The Scrub was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War and grew into a thriving business and entertainment district that included Central Avenue, known as the Harlem of the South. Central Avenue is where popular black musicians of the day went to perform — Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald among them.
The Garrison was a Black community that formed around the Fort Brooke area after the old Army post was decommissioned in 1883.
According to A Study of Negro Life in Tampa, published by the city of Tampa in 1927, both neighborhoods were primarily made up of simple wooden homes connected by sand roads.
The Tampa Bay Times found 30 historic photographs of the Scrub on Hillsborough County Public Library’s website. Those are mostly aerials. If residents are in a picture, they are seen at a distance. All but one are post-1950. The photo from 1927 is an aerial of Ybor City with the Scrub in the background.
The Times could not find any historic photographs of the Garrison through the library. The Tampa Bay History Center located three in its archives. One dates to 1927 and the other two to 1936. Only one shows residents.
For comparison, the library has more than 200 historic photographs of the Ybor City Latin District’s buildings, people and festivities. Those photographs date to the 1890s and include every decade through the 1950s.
“That has a lot to do with Jim Crow and racism,” Collins said. “The African American residents didn’t usually have cameras and photographers didn’t want to go into African American neighborhoods. When someone did go to the neighborhoods to take pictures, it was just of roads and buildings. They didn’t bother documenting the everyday life” of Black residents.
Moseley’s WPA drawings of the Scrub depict families on their porches, residents purchasing produce from a cart and what he called “the division of labor” — a man napping on his porch as a woman hangs laundry.
A drawing of the Garrison depicts neighbors conversing in the street.
Moseley also drew Black men and women fishing on the docks, the Black-owned Sam’s Palace Cafe and a Black family relaxing in Plant Park, which today is part of the University of Tampa’s campus.
“Through Moseley’s eyes, there is an interesting picture in scenes that to the average person would appear to be commonplace,” the Tampa Tribune wrote in 1937 in its critique of the drawings while they were on display at the Florida Fair Fine Arts Building. “Sam’s Palace Cafe, a negro lunch stand on the waterfront, is one of those subjects. It’s a two-story tumble-down ramshackle shack, and several negros usually may be seen loafing on its shady side.”
Those “loafers” are included in the drawing.
Karl Moseley was born in 1879 in Pennsylvania as Carl Moseley, later changing the spelling of his first name on the advice of an uncle who was an advertising specialist, according to the USF website.
He moved to Florida with his family in 1882, when they purchased the homestead.
“He was an artist at an early age,” Collins said. “Karl would design bookmarks that went along with each of the books in the family library.”
Moseley pursued a career as an artist in New York. His drawings appeared in Life, Harper’s and McClure’s Magazine. News archives report that he created 250 drawings for author W. Maxwell’s The Earth for Sam children’s book.
“Karl became very well known,” Collins said. “And then the Great Depression happens and life became a struggle.”
In the early 1930s, Moseley returned to the family homestead, where his parents built him an art studio. A drawing of the studio was part of his WPA collection.
“It was a difficult time for him,” Collins said. “Then the WPA came around. The program did more than put people back to work. It instilled pride back into their person. It was demoralizing to be out of work.”
Moseley’s original drawings toured locally and were displayed at “hundreds of places,” Collins said. “They were at county buildings and libraries and so many other places.”
She remains on the lookout for the originals but, for now, Collins said, the photographs of those drawings should be considered “priceless.”
“They should be studied and shared,” Collins said. “They show what real life was like back then. You can’t put a price tag on that.”