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It overcame racism, but how much longer can the Marti-Maceo club survive?

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times Cheryl Rodriguez, who is of Afro-Cuban descent, talks about her father, Francisco Rodriguez, who was a prominent civil rights attorney in Tampa. The Tampa Hispanic Bar Association and the George Edgecomb Bar Association honored the legacy of Sociedad La Union Marti-Maceo located in  Ybor City.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Cheryl Rodriguez, who is of Afro-Cuban descent, talks about her father, Francisco Rodriguez, who was a prominent civil rights attorney in Tampa. The Tampa Hispanic Bar Association and the George Edgecomb Bar Association honored the legacy of Sociedad La Union Marti-Maceo located in Ybor City.
Published Oct. 16, 2018

These are uncertain times for Sociedad La Union Martí-Maceo, the Afro-Cuban social club that has been an Ybor City staple since 1900.

Its dues-paying ranks have dwindled to less than 50 members, many of whom are elderly.

And since the club lost access to a parking lot that adjoins its clubhouse at 1226 E Seventh Ave., some events that rented the building for convenience go elsewhere, further hurting Martí-Maceo's bottom line.

Still, while expressing concern, club president Sharon Gomez told the Tampa Bay Times, "We will maintain as we always have."

Throughout most of the club's early existence, the Afro-Cuban members battled racism. If they overcame that ugliness, Gomez said, she remains hopeful they can overcome anything.

The club turned 118 years old on Wednesday.

To honor it, the Tampa Hispanic Bar Association and George Edgecomb Bar Association held a joint luncheon a day earlier at the clubhouse. They celebrated Martí-Maceo's perseverance.

"Martí-Maceo is a Tampa historical bedrock and foundation," said Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, who planned the event. "You cannot be Tampa proud and Tampa strong without being Martí-Maceo proud and Martí-Maceo strong."

Tampa's first social club for Cubans, El Club Nacional Cubano, was founded in 1899 and included blacks and whites. Then "segregation became law of the land," historian E.J. Salcines said in his speech at the luncheon. Martí-Maceo "exists because of that Supreme Court decision."

White Cubans formed the Circulo Cubano de Tampa, which remains in existence.

Afro-Cubans named their club after white Cuban political activist José Martí and Afro-Cuban general Antonio Maceo.

The Ku Klux Klan threatened Martí-Maceo members and white Cubans who supported it, Susan Greenbaum told the luncheon crowd.

"This was a club built by heroes, kept going by heroes," said Greenbaum, whose book More Than Black focuses on Martí-Maceo.

Like Ybor's other social clubs, Martí-Maceo provided its members services such as a health clinic in an ornate clubhouse. Opened in 1909 on the corner of 11th Street and Sixth Avenue, the two-story brick building also had a tennis court, theater and ballroom.

"As a young man, my father attended social events there," Cheryl Rodriguez, director of the University of South Florida's Institute on Black Life and daughter of civil rights activist Francisco Rodriguez, said in her luncheon remarks. "Those experiences celebrated Afro-Cuban life for black people in Tampa."

By the 1960s, with its cigar industry declining, Ybor fell into disarray. So, to take advantage of federal funds available under an Urban Renewal Program that helped cities demolish old structures and build new ones, Tampa bought property under eminent domain.

The only social club axed was Martí-Maceo, which then moved to its current less-opulent location, a former union hall.

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Reasons given: The original clubhouse was in poor condition and its land, now part of the federally subsidized Tampa Park Apartments, was too valuable.

Club president and fifth generation member Gomez pointed to another possibility why white social clubs were spared while the lone black one was not: racism.

In the 1980s as city leaders were seeking to make Ybor a historic district, author Greenbaum said, the original boundary excluded Martí-Maceo for racist reasons.

A federal employee involved in the process told her that he was "amazed" that city leaders "did not get the fact that overt racial discrimination was no longer allowed," Greenbaum said.

Martí-Maceo was ultimately included in the district.

Still, its latest troubles highlight that today's city appreciates the club, president Gomez said.

While hurt by a decrease in rentals since the city sold the adjacent parking lot to Darryl Shaw and Ariel Quintela two years ago, things could have been worse, Gomez said.

Early concern was that a planned apartment and retail building there would block the clubgoers' route to a nearby parking garage.

That would "tank" their rental business, Gomez said.

But the developers have promised to keep an alley, Gomez said.

"They respect what we mean to this city."

Now, she hopes the younger generation of Tampa residents come around.

Those of all races can join the club or rent the clubhouse.

"We have to keep recruiting," Gomez said. "We have to find people who are interested in preserving our rich history."

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

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