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Historian raises profile of African-American history with walks through Tampa's past

TAMPA — Ray Charles wrote St. Pete Florida Blues in Tampa but named the song for the city across the bridge because, with all its famous beaches, St. Petersburg had more of a national reputation.

Perry Harvey, Tampa's first black city council member, pushed equal learning opportunities for children from low-income families and inspired the name Head Start for the national education program.

These benchmarks in local African-American history should be common knowledge throughout Tampa, historian Fred Hearns says. But they're not.

"This is black history, but even more it is Tampa history," Hearns says. "Everyone here should know it."

Hearns is working on changing that through a partnership with the Tampa Bay History Center, leading a black history walking tour through downtown from 10 a.m. to noon on the last Saturday of each month.

The first was held in September. The next one will be held Saturday. The fee is $20, paid in advance at tampabayhistorycenter.org.

The mile walk starts at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, heads south on Nebraska Avenue, west on Scott Street and ends at Perry Harvey Park.

This route encompasses what was once Central Avenue, the African-American district once akin to the role Ybor City's Seventh Avenue played for Latinos.

"Just like you can't know the story of Tampa without knowing Ybor City," Hearns says, "you can't know Tampa without knowing Central Avenue."

Still, the tour's history lessons extend to every corner of the city.

"Let me tell you the story of how Mr. Booker T. Washington came to Tampa in 1912," Hearns says as he walked the tour route.

Thousands of African-Americans moved to Tampa in the early 1900s as the tobacco industry flourished in Ybor City and West Tampa.

They primarily worked in businesses frequented by those employed in the cigar factories. But local African-American leaders wanted to encourage the black community to "step up to the plate," Hearns says, and start businesses. Booker T. Washington, the renowned author, educator and adviser to presidents, traveled to Tampa to inspire the cause.

"He gave a speech at what is now the University of Tampa," Hearns says. "Whites and blacks attended. He was the most prominent black man in the country and he came here. We have to get that history out there."

Now 69, Hearns experienced Central Avenue as a teenager when it was known as the Harlem of the South for its clubs hosting top national African-American entertainers.

Then came the riots of 1967, sparked by the fatal shooting of an unarmed, black teen burglary suspect by a white police officer. Four Central Avenue buildings went up in flames.

Still damaged, Central Avenue was bulldozed in the 1970s. Later, Hearns came to question the way the district was remembered — and the way other important local people and moments were remembered, too.

So he learned everything he could about the history for himself — how in the 1800s a black Seminole known as Chief Abraham served as a translator between his tribe and the soldiers at Fort Brooke, for example.

"I didn't want anything to be forgotten," Hearns says.

While working as director of the Tampa Department of Community Affairs, Hearns spearheaded the mural on the Kid Mason Community Center at 1101 N Jefferson Ave. that pays tribute to Central Avenue.

About 10 years ago he started a black history bus tour and later a walking tour, by request only and mostly for schools and civic groups.

His partnership with the history center expands the reach of the tour.

"We're always looking for new ways to tell stories," says Manny Leto, the center's spokesman. "This takes the museum experience outside the museum."

Perry Harvey Park downtown is rich with lessons in black history, told through murals and photos and pavers — all installed after Hearns was hired as a city consultant on the project.

Still, he says, "the city doesn't properly promote this park. They don't have enough activities here so not enough people come to learn this."

As he walks the park, speaking of its history, Sarasota visitors Maria Dominguez and Linda Diaz listen in.

Dominguez gasps when Hearns tells her about the courage it took for Robert Saunders of Tampa, head of Florida's NAACP in the mid 1900s, to advocate for equal rights in small rural towns heavy with Ku Klux Klan membership.

She shakes her head in disbelief when she learns there is no historic marker at the site of the boarding house where Ray Charles stayed, then known as 813 Short Emery St. but now a parking lot on Jefferson Avenue.

"I guess not enough people have asked for it," Hearns says.

"Keep telling people about it," Dominguez replies. "Maybe that will change."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow
@PGuzzoTimes.

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