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Neighbors want Tampa to preserve Dobyville, a historic Black neighborhood

The Tampa neighborhood still includes the home of its namesake Richard Doby.
Tara Nelan poses for a portrait on the porch of her Tampa home that was formerly owned by Richard Doby, who founded Zion Cemetery and helped build the historically Black neighborhood known as Dobyville.
Tara Nelan poses for a portrait on the porch of her Tampa home that was formerly owned by Richard Doby, who founded Zion Cemetery and helped build the historically Black neighborhood known as Dobyville. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2021|Updated Dec. 4, 2021

TAMPA — The school he had built for Black children was razed and the cemetery he founded for the Black community was erased, but the home of Tampa’s pioneering Black developer still stands.

Richard Doby’s house survived threats from torch-bearing racists, construction of the expressway and time.

Now, the current owner of the century-old, 900-square-foot home on the corner of Azeele Street and South Orleans Avenue wants to ensure its safety in perpetuity.

She would like the house and the neighborhood that once bore Doby’s name to be included in the existing Local Hyde Park Historic District.

That would make it more difficult for the city or future owners to raze the home or modernize its exterior and provide the same protection to any of the neighborhood’s original structures.

“I have a responsibility to this house and its history,” said Tara Nelan, who purchased the home in April 2020. “It needs to be recognized for its importance.”

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Nelan, her neighbors and historic preservationists, an effort is underway to preserve the historic Black community known as Dobyville.

Dennis Fernandez, the city of Tampa’s architectural review and historic preservation manager, said “formal consideration” by his agency to add it to the local Hyde Park Historic District is planned for March 2022. If they vote in favor of the measure, the final decision “resides with city council.”

Reese Riggle , left, speaks with Tara Nelan, right, on the porch of Nelan’s Tampa home that was formerly owned by Richard Doby, who founded Zion Cemetery and helped build the historically Black neighborhood known as Dobyville.
Reese Riggle , left, speaks with Tara Nelan, right, on the porch of Nelan’s Tampa home that was formerly owned by Richard Doby, who founded Zion Cemetery and helped build the historically Black neighborhood known as Dobyville. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The historic district’s current northern boundary is Platt Street from Bayshore Boulevard to South Boulevard and DeLeon Street from South Boulevard to South Rome Avenue. That cuts right around Dobyville.

Dobyville's location in Tampa.
Dobyville's location in Tampa. [ Times ]

Dobyville is part of the National Hyde Park Historic District, but the national designation is symbolic and does not provide the neighborhood the same protections as a local historic designation.

Tampa City Council considered including Dobyville when that local historic district was created in the 1980s, preservationist Del Acosta said.

“There were some slum lords who opposed it and some title problems,” he said. “So, city council left it out of the historic district and said it would revisit the issue in a year or two. That was 1988. It’s now 2021.”

Dobyville resident Reese Riggle, who has been among the leaders of the effort, hopes the district is expanded to at least the Selmon Expressway. That would exclude a few Dobyville blocks, but those, he said, could be added later.

“This isn’t about just preserving homes,” he said. “It’s about recognizing that this neighborhood is a piece of history.”

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Related: A historic sign has the wrong name for an African-American pioneer. But much more needs fixing.

History of Dobyville

Doby used earnings he made delivering ice and collecting trash to branch out into real estate.

In 1894, he purchased three acres along the 3800 block of N. Florida Ave. in Robles Pond, another historic Black neighborhood. Seven years later, he founded Zion Cemetery, believed to have been Tampa’s first Black burial ground.

Doby then invested in land in the West Hyde Park neighborhood where he lived and helped develop it into the neighborhood that later bore his name.

“He owned the school property and donated it for the school, and he owned the property where he lived,” the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite Powell said. “He probably owned adjacent land and sold that to people for individual homes.”

A 1927 study found that approximately 10 percent of Tampa’s Black residents called Dobyville home at that time.

“Some of the homes are undoubtedly middle class to upper middle class,” said Acosta, citing Riggle’s 1,800-square-foot Willow Avenue home as an example. “So, it was more than just an African American neighborhood. It was an aspirational African American neighborhood.”

Reese Riggle poses in front of his Tampa home, which is part of a historically Black neighborhood known as Dobyville.
Reese Riggle poses in front of his Tampa home, which is part of a historically Black neighborhood known as Dobyville. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Racists tried to force out the Black residents.

According to a Tampa Tribune article from 1926, a cross was burned in Doby’s yard, and a mob ordered him to move out. He stayed.

Still, racist policies erased Zion Cemetery.

In 1907, Doby sold it to a Black-owned company. In the 1920s, the city levied improvement taxes on property owners in Robles Pond. That included Zion, which as a cemetery should not have been taxed.

The city reverted cemetery ownership to the descendants of property’s original white homesteader when the Black company did not pay. The city then canceled those taxes at the request of the new white owner and allowed a white developer to build on the Black cemetery without removing the bodies.

Decades later, construction of the Selmon Expressway cut through Dobyville. The school was among the buildings demolished.

Over the years, other original Dobyville homes were demolished to make way for modern structures.

It is unclear how many remain.

Related: Black communities around Tampa Bay were erased. Should cities pay to save the history?

Adding Dobyville to the historic district comes with a financial burden for homeowners. Changes to a building’s exterior must follow city guidelines meant to protect the original appearance. That can be expensive and time-consuming.

“We’re aware of that,” Riggle said. “The homeowners generally don’t mind. We want to protect this neighborhood, its history and all the things we love about living here.”

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