The face of Booker T. Washington stares down from two large banners hanging astride the main entrance to the Henry B. Plant Museum this month.
The significance is not lost on historian and University of Tampa associate professor Charles McGraw Groh.
“Washington wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel (which later became the museum) when he visited in 1912,” McGraw Groh said. “Now there’s a huge photo of him hanging on the building.”
Washington, an educator and advocate who dined with President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House and was one of the most famous men in the country, could not stay in any Tampa hotel.
Prominent Black residents instead hosted Washington and his traveling party in their homes. Washington stayed with the Rev. Daniel Perrin, a presiding elder at Tampa’s St. Paul AME Church, and his wife, Rowena.
A new exhibit titled “When the Train Comes Along: Booker T. Washington at the Tampa Bay Casino,” based on McGraw Groh’s research into Washington’s 1912 visit, opens at the Plant Museum on March 19.
Among the items on display is a copy of Washington’s thank-you note to the Perrins.
The exhibit uses what McGraw Groh called a “mostly forgotten” chapter in Tampa’s history to create a snapshot of the city’s Black community at the moment racial boundaries were hardening through Jim Crow segregation.
It spotlights how Tampa’s Black residents, denied public services and forced out of local politics, created their own civic societies and mutual aid organizations that made an event like Washington’s visit possible.
Even the venue for the speech, the Tampa Bay Casino, which sat yards away from where the museum stands on the University of Tampa campus, tells a story.
“They rented the most prominent venue in the city, one that is owned by the city, and petitioned for the city council to attend,” McGraw Groh said. “It’s really Tampa’s Black residents asserting themselves publicly as part of civic life.”
One wall in the museum will feature a map charting what the Black community in Tampa looked like in 1912 and will showcase the different people involved.
Most of the reception committee that welcomed Washington to Tampa, including George S. Middleton, for whom Tampa’s Middleton High School is named, belonged to the Paul Dunbar Literary Society, founded several years earlier by Black postal workers to sponsor lectures on intellectual improvement.
J. Andrew Williams, who also hosted members of Washington’s party at his home, was the Black owner of a cigar factory that Washington toured the following day.
“He kind of epitomized Washington’s belief that business ownership was key to racial progress,” McGraw Groh said. “He also provided cigars to everyone. You can’t have Tampa history without cigars factoring in somehow.”
“When the Train Comes Along” examines Tampa in the years leading up to Washington’s visit, which was part of a speaking tour focused on Black education, and ends several years after.
It came together through archival research into Washington’s papers in the Library of Congress, newspaper accounts, help from three of Tampa’s historic Black churches, the collections at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida and interviews with descendants of Tampa families that played a role.
A photo of the audience at Washington’s speech shows Black attendees seated on one side of the center aisle and the white audience seated on the other. McGraw Groh said research showed there had initially been sheets hanging in the center aisle to shield the Black audience from the white audience’s view, but Washington refused to speak with them up.
Washington’s speech may have been one of the first opportunities to bring the Afro-Cuban and African American communities together. Though the two communities had not connected at the time, they found themselves facing the same deteriorating racial conditions in 1912.
A banquet was held in Washington’s honor in Ybor City after the speech.
For a long time, people had wondered why that reception took place in Ybor City, McGraw Groh said. Then his team found an exchange of letters between Washington and the Sociedad la Unión Martí-Maceo, a mutual aid society founded by Ybor’s Afro-Cubans, in the Library of Congress.
“So here we have this really early example of the first steps toward kind of building a common sense of community between them,” McGraw Grow said, “right here in Tampa.”
IF YOU GO
“When the Train Comes Along: Booker T. Washington at the Tampa Bay Casino” runs from March 19 to Dec. 23. Masks are required. $5-$10. Henry B. Plant Museum, 401 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. 813-254-1891. plantmuseum.com.