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New Tampa Bay History Center exhibit tells 500 years of Black history

Travails and Triumphs starts with enslaved Africans brought to Florida in the 1500s and concludes with the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020.
Curtis Stokes, chairperson of the Tampa Bay History Center board of trustees, looks at items on display before the ribbon-cutting ceremony as he walks through the new permanent Black history exhibit at the center. The new exhibit, Travails and Triumphs, chronicles over 500 years of Black history in the Tampa Bay area.
Curtis Stokes, chairperson of the Tampa Bay History Center board of trustees, looks at items on display before the ribbon-cutting ceremony as he walks through the new permanent Black history exhibit at the center. The new exhibit, Travails and Triumphs, chronicles over 500 years of Black history in the Tampa Bay area. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published June 2|Updated June 3

TAMPA — Fred Hearns hadn’t worn his George S. Middleton High School marching band letterman jacket in decades.

“It just hung in my closet,” said Hearns, who is the Tampa Bay History Center’s curator of Black history and a 1966 Middleton graduate. “I’d show it to my kids every now and then, but really no one cared about it. But it was important to me. It was a memory.”

Now it’s considered a historic artifact representing Hillsborough County’s first high school established for Black students during the era of segregation. The jacket is part of the history center’s Travails and Triumphs, a 100-artifact exhibit that tells the 500-year story of Tampa Bay’s Black residents.

Travails and Triumphs opens to the public Friday. It is the history center’s first new permanent exhibit in five years.

“We wanted to expand our African American history story,” said history center president C.J. Roberts. “Those stories had been woven through our other exhibits, but they were never really presented in a way where you could see the whole story in a comprehensive way.”

The exhibit begins with a placard telling the story of the enslaved Africans brought to Florida in the 1500s and concludes with the tale of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, told with a handmade sign that reads “Racism is whack.” It was held by a 6-year-old girl at a rally at Curtis Hixon Park.

“We explained to her father that we wanted it for posterity,” said Brad Massey, the history center’s curator of public history.

Items on display in the new permanent Black history exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, including the “Racism is whack” sign held by a 6-year-old girl at a rally at Curtis Hixon Park. The new exhibit, Travails and Triumphs, chronicles over 500 years of Black history in the Tampa Bay area.
Items on display in the new permanent Black history exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, including the “Racism is whack” sign held by a 6-year-old girl at a rally at Curtis Hixon Park. The new exhibit, Travails and Triumphs, chronicles over 500 years of Black history in the Tampa Bay area. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The exhibit also tells the story of Tampa’s Central Avenue, which was the Black business district known as the Harlem of the South for its clubs hosting top national Black entertainers. Travails and Triumphs also teaches about the Tampa Negro Hospital, which Clara Frye started in 1908 in her three-room home, with the dining room table serving as the operating table. It later expanded to a larger building.

“We have a patient registry from the hospital,” Hearns said. “I think it is the item that means the most to our Black history.”

A rifle from the Seminole Wars is among the oldest artifacts.

“Some people say it could also have been called the Negro Wars,” Hearns said. “The war was a dual effort to remove the Seminoles from Florida and send them out West and capture the Blacks living freely here and enslaving them.”

A scroll listing Tampa property acquisitions during the late 1860s might be the rarest artifact, said Rodney Kite-Powell, director of the history center’s Touchton Map Library. “We acquired a huge collection from a couple in Ozona and it was a lot of post-Civil War city records. The scroll includes the name of five African Americans, who were some of the first Black property owners here.”

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Zion Cemetery was one of Tampa’s first Black burial grounds. It was erased in the 1930s, built over and forgotten until located by archaeologists in 2019 in response to a Tampa Bay Times article. To tell Zion’s story, the exhibit displays a piece of the covering hung on the fence that now surrounds the cemetery land. The covering lists the names of those buried there.

“Two of the names are Spotfords,” Hearns said. “Trayvon Martin’s mother is related to those Spotfords.”

Hearns was intent on the exhibit telling about Tampa’s longshoremen of the 1930s and 1940s. He acquired a banana crate from that era.

“Some of the best jobs Black men could get was working on the docks,” he said. “Those jobs helped to create the Black middle class.”

Items on display in the new permanent Black history exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, including a dress made by Ann Lowe. The Tampa fashion designer went on to create Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress.
Items on display in the new permanent Black history exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, including a dress made by Ann Lowe. The Tampa fashion designer went on to create Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The exhibit also includes a dress made by Ann Lowe. The career of the seamstress began in Tampa and culminated in New York, where she made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress.

And then there is a golf club that belonged to Eddie Smith. As a kid, Smith helped construct Rogers Park Golf Course, Tampa’s first for Black residents. He later became one of Florida’s first Black golf celebrities.

“We want to tell stories of regular people who made a big difference,” Massey said.

The most difficult part of curating the exhibit was obtaining items like the golf club — items that families still care about, Hearns said. That’s why he donated his own letterman jacket. “People were hesitant to give theirs up. So, I did.”

Representing Howard W. Blake High School, the other option for Black students during segregation, is Leroy Long’s letterman jacket.

“He’s probably the best Black tennis player to come out of Tampa,” Hearns said.

Despite Blake being Middleton’s sworn athletic enemy, Hearns said with a laugh, he had to include them, too. “It would be like having peanut butter without jelly. Or maybe more like the Hatfields without the McCoys.”