TAMPA — Almost daily, City Council member Gwen Henderson drives through the neighborhood once called The Scrub, paying homage to the community that thrived before the bulldozers and the promises of urban renewal.
It was founded by freed enslaved people after the Civil War, who built homes in a palmetto thicket nestled north of Tampa’s downtown. There were dozens of Black-owned businesses. There were schools and churches. There was music and dancing. The Harlem of the South, some called it.
Just two of the more than 600 homes that once formed The Scrub stand today. On Thursday, 70 years after the city declared the area a slum, Tampa City Council members took preliminary action to designate the pair as local historic landmarks.
“It is not only the right thing to do,” said Henderson, whose district includes the single-story structures and whose father once lived in The Scrub before enlisting during the Korean War. “It is actually long overdue.”
The homes, wood-framed with crimped metal roofs, currently sit vacant at 1248 and 1250 E Scott St. and join an existing city historic area that includes five nearby brick churches. The pair are collectively known as the Johnson Brother Houses for the generations of family they once hosted. Today, the Tampa Housing Authority owns them.
The Scrub began as a small settlement supplying housing for workers at nearby lumber mills. The community bloomed, becoming home to the city’s first Black-owned dental practice, drug store and theater. At its beating heart stood Central Avenue, where the sidewalks and storefronts were jammed with people. Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald performed. B.B. King, too.
The city declared The Scrub a slum in the 1950s. The Tampa Tribune called it “Tampa’s greatest eyesore.” The community was razed to make way for a housing project and, later, the interstate.
“It happened because of racism,” Henderson said. “City government racism and national government racism wiped out a significant part of our community.”
The Housing Authority submitted an application for local historic landmark designation this February, about a year after prolific real estate investor Darryl Shaw helped the agency secure the pair of homes with the goal of restoration.
Shaw convinced the previous owner, Paul Johnson, to sell, worried they’d fall into such disrepair that they would not be restorable, the Times previously reported. The sale was finalized last February for $310,000.
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Historic designation provides protection for landmarks and additional reviews of proposed changes to the designated properties. It safeguards the heritage of the city and provides certain economic benefits, city preservation specialist Elaine Lund told the council Thursday morning.
Council members voted unanimously that the homes meet the local landmark criteria, following the recommendation of the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission. Final action will be taken at a public meeting Oct. 19.
“This was a huge mistake by the city, and we need to correct it,” said council member Bill Carlson, who would like to see the recreation of Central Avenue institutions. “We have to, in earnest, look at not just preserving the older buildings but rebuilding some of them that were torn down.”
“We can create a hub,” echoed chairperson Guido Maniscalco.
After council members reflected on the city’s rich and violent history, and the racism baked into its design, Henderson read the motion in support of landmark status with “great joy.”
About a mile northeast of Old City Hall, the pair of homes stood vacant and peeling behind a chain-link fence.