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Unveiling for 'Fortune Taylor Bridge' marker rained out, but celebration continues indoors

From left, Tampa City Council members Frank Reddick and Yvonne Yolie Capin,  writer Ersula Odom, Friends of Madame Taylor founder Gloria Jean Royster and Guido Maniscalco, Mike Suarez and Charlie Miranda. The council recognized Royster and Odom on Sunday for their work to arrange a historical marker designating Madame Fortune Taylor Bridge. [LANGSTON TAYLOR   |   Times
From left, Tampa City Council members Frank Reddick and Yvonne Yolie Capin, writer Ersula Odom, Friends of Madame Taylor founder Gloria Jean Royster and Guido Maniscalco, Mike Suarez and Charlie Miranda. The council recognized Royster and Odom on Sunday for their work to arrange a historical marker designating Madame Fortune Taylor Bridge. [LANGSTON TAYLOR | Times
Published May 21, 2018

TAMPA — There's a saying that everyone dies twice, Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco said Sunday: Once when they take their last breath. And again the last time someone mentions their name.

So in this case, he said, the name "Fortune Taylor" is being resurrected.

Maniscalco and dozens of other local officials joined historians in the Barrymore Hotel to celebrate restoring Taylor's name to a bridge spanning the Hillsborough River. The event occurred 153 years to the day after Taylor, who was born into slavery, gained her freedom.

Born in 1825 in South Carolina, Taylor was owned by the Howell family, who later moved to Hernando County, bringing her and an enslaved man, Benjamin.

After their emancipation, Benjamin and Fortune married in 1866, one of the first legal ceremonies for an African-American couple in Hillsborough County. Eventually, Fortune Taylor secured the title to 33 acres of land in downtown Tampa along the east bank of the Hillsborough River, including land now occupied by the Barrymore.

In 1892, Taylor and lawyer Hugh McFarlane agreed to build a bridge spanning the river, connecting West Tampa to the rest of the area. The original bridge was replaced by the current one in 1927. It was known until the 1960s as the Fortune Street Bridge.

In 1967, construction to accommodate Tampa's portion of Interstate 275 meant realigning a number of streets that included Fortune Street, and the bridge ended up along Laurel Street, for which it was renamed.

"Someone stole that from her," Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick said during an October meeting when the council voted to restore Fortune's name to the bridge. The road will still be called Laurel Street, but a historic marker now stands on the bridge's east side, reading "Madame Fortune Taylor Bridge."

Gloria Jean Royster, founder of Friends of Madame Taylor, spearheaded efforts to create the marker, a forest green sign with gold lettering and trim that chronicles Taylor's life up to the original bridge's construction in 1892.

Tampa historian Fred Hearns emceed the event, introducing several speakers, including state Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, and Reddick and Maniscalco.

Ersula Odom, a writer and motivational speaker, delivered an original poem, which she refers to as Tampa's Good Fortune. John Parks and Katurah Robinson of USF's School of Theatre and Dance performed an accompanying dance throughout the hotel's dining room.

"The spirit of celebration is in the air / It's tangible, it's spiritual, it's for real …"

Odom and Royster received recognition from the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners and Tampa City Council for their work in resurrecting Taylor's story. Kemp thanked "those of you who have worked so hard to bring this part of lost history back."

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The motto and hashtag for the event was "She bridged the gap," referencing the bridge's role in connecting West Tampa to the rest of the city and Taylor's work to connect her community.

Organizers had hoped to spend Sunday morning outside unveiling the marker, but rain forced the event indoors. The marker remained covered.

For Royster, spreading Taylor's story, especially to young people, means reiterating the importance of inclusivity and respect.

"When you think about her life, she embraced everybody," Royster said. "You read her marker, and then if you read a little bit about her history, and then if you understand that Fortune Street is a memorial to race relations, then that is why she's important."

Royster doesn't want that gospel to stop there.

"We plan to take it into schools, her impact — history, period, not just Fortune Taylor," she said.

But first, on a day with better weather, Royster wants a public unveiling ceremony for the marker to resurrect the Fortune Taylor name in broad daylight.

Contact Langston Taylor at (727) 893-8659 or ltaylor@tampabay.com. Follow @langstonitaylor.

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