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Time to save the Jackson House, part of Tampa's black history

Willie Robinson Jr. grew up in this century-old house on Zack Street in Tampa. During segregation, the Jackson House, as it is called, was a boarding house where many black entertainers visited. 
Published Aug. 24, 2013

Your friends arrive in Tampa longing to discover the city's rich history.

Busch Gardens awaits and the beach beckons, but on this day, they want to dig into the rich soil that helped fuel our city's beginnings. They want to tour the casitas in Ybor City, lunch at the Columbia and imagine the parties that used to take place at the Cuban Club.

And they want to savor the flavor that once made Central Avenue a destination for Tampa's black residents. So you take them to the Jackson Rooming House on Zack Street, just a stone's throw from Union Station.

And you share that this is where stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and James Brown once stayed when they played the old "chitlin circuit."

You walk across restored hardwood floors, noting the home's designation on the National Register of Historic Places and Florida's Black Heritage Trail. Willie Robinson Jr., a descendant of the family that owned the home for more than 100 years, greets you and begins regaling you with tales about the celebrities and stories of his relatives.

As you walk through the Jackson House you imagine the joyous conversations Fitzgerald may have had after a night of entertaining. A recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speeches echoes from a room, reminding visitors he too spent a night at the Jackson House.

From another room comes the soothing voice of Nat "King" Cole, another man who rested comfortably in the boardinghouse during a time when blacks couldn't stay at white-only hotels.

L is for the way you look at me

O is for the only one I see

V is very, very extraordinary

E is even more than anyone that you adore

And you love it. You love that Robinson refused to give up the fight when the home fell into disrepair and the city's code enforcement officials respectfully but ardently insisted that repairs be made. You love that he resisted the lure of buyers because his mother gave it to him as a treasure to behold, not an asset to sell.

You love that Bracken Engineering and the firm's Matt Depin acted upon their love for historic buildings and found a way to restore the home with donations of money and manpower.

But then you awake from this wonderful dream, and you discover that the Jackson Rooming House, the last structure connected to Tampa's halcyon Central Avenue days, is gone, replaced only by a weed-filled lot.

• • •

The reality is that the house still stands today. For now.

The dream of preserving the home, however, moved a step closer to becoming a sad nightmare this week. Code officials have given Robinson 30 days to brace the house and make the roof stop leaking. An emergency order will lead to a contractor — either one hired by the city or Robinson — to remove the home's chimney, brick by brick.

Both Robinson and Depin say laborers and suppliers are standing at the ready to begin work on the home, which will cost more than $1 million to repair. However, they can't act until the Jackson Rooming House receives its government designation as a nonprofit.

Robinson said the paperwork has been filed and he has received a letter from the state that the application is in the process of being approved. But as the summer sun beams down on the house each morning and the rain leaks through its faltering roof each afternoon, code enforcement officials grow more concerned for the people who park on the home's adjacent lot.

But the city officials clearly are rooting for Robinson. So is everyone else who has learned about the home and Robinson's unyielding drive to keep a promise to his mother and maintain the home.

If he succeeds, Robinson hopes the home will end up housing veterans. I hope a part of the 24-room structure will be open to tours.

It's a piece of Tampa history that deserves to be shared with young and old, visitors and long-time residents.

It's a home that needs our love.

That's all I'm saying.

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