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As Florida targets Black history, this Tampa bookstore celebrates it

The city’s lone Black council member opens a “sanctuary” for books and readers.
 
Gwen Henderson says she became a bookseller to honor her great-great-grandfather, who was born into slavery and died unable to read and write.
Gwen Henderson says she became a bookseller to honor her great-great-grandfather, who was born into slavery and died unable to read and write. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 10, 2023|Updated Dec. 10, 2023

TAMPA — The store on the corner was an hour from its grand opening and inside stood its owner, wearing a smile and a broach of Harriet Tubman. “For courage and strength,” Gwen Henderson said.

Here, in a state where the relationship between students and books, parents and libraries, and teachers and the texts they teach feels increasingly in flux, Tampa’s lone Black City Council member was opening a bookstore.

“A sanctuary,” she said, “for banned books.”

Standing beside a mural of her daughter absorbed in a book, Henderson thought of her great-great-grandfather, Sam Hightower, who was born into slavery and died unable to read and write.

I will become a bookseller in his honor, she’d vowed long ago.

On the first Saturday in December, on a city block just north of the interstate that had once plowed through Tampa’s Black community, she was.

Black English Bookstore opened earlier this month at 401 E. Oak Ave. in Tampa.
Black English Bookstore opened earlier this month at 401 E. Oak Ave. in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Even before Gov. Ron DeSantis ushered in a rapid-fire reevaluation of Black history taught in Florida, the 59-year-old public school teacher had been dreaming up a bookstore centering literature and history often pushed to the margins.

Then, driving home from Old City Hall earlier this year, she spotted a scrap of serendipity in the window of a handsome brick building. A “For lease” sign, put up just half an hour before.

It had only been a handful of months since she’d won her seat on the City Council. She was caring for her mother, in a wheelchair and afflicted with dementia. She was teaching. She was busy.

Then again, how could she not?

She ran for office in the hope of using her background as an educator to build economic opportunities for young residents. To show them that success was possible — possible in their neighborhood.

And here was a building for lease between her home and her office, a space so perfect she later joked she’d rent out her home and move in with an air mattress and an air fryer.

She signed the lease in October. Black English Bookstore would open at 401 E. Oak Ave.

The same month, someone took a blunt object to the glass artwork at Perry Harvey Sr. Park, a hard-fought testament to Tampa’s Black history, less than a mile from the bookstore.

Again and again they smashed the faces of the city’s early Black leaders.

She visited the scene alone one night. Children playing nearby saw the broken glass. “Why would they do that?” she remembers one of them saying.

She didn’t know, but she did know this: The park was named after Tampa’s first Black City Council member. It stood in a part of town once called The Scrub, founded by freed enslaved in a palmetto thicket.

A 1945 city plan called the area “a cancerous infection.”

Gone now were the businesses that bloomed to define its beating heart, Central Avenue: the barber shops, the hair salons, the theater that charged 5 cents for a movie. The barbecue joints, the bars. The music halls that drew Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald and earned the community the nickname Harlem of the South.

Tampa City Council member and bookstore owner Gwen Henderson meets with customers during a grand opening event at Black English on Dec. 2 in Tampa.
Tampa City Council member and bookstore owner Gwen Henderson meets with customers during a grand opening event at Black English on Dec. 2 in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The community was razed to make way for an interstate and promises of urban renewal.

“It happened because of racism,” Henderson said at a September council meeting. “City government racism and national government racism wiped out a significant part of our community.”

Now, she opened the blinds of her soon-to-be-open bookstore, allowing the early December sunlight to pour in.

She felt the disrespect of her community’s history in the thrum of the nearby highway, in the broken glass of the nearby memorial, in the headlines of books being pulled from nearby school shelves.

She missed visits to Books for Thought, which closed in 2007. It was owned by her sorority sister Felicia Wintons-Taylor, who died in 2009. Nestled between a coin laundry and a Cuban restaurant, it was more than a store. It was a watering hole, quenching a community’s cultural thirst. A place to have Christmas pictures taken with a Black Santa Claus.

Wintons-Taylor wanted to showcase the expansiveness of Black authors, to introduce readers to luminaries and lesser-known local authors. To champion, as her business card had said, that “Every month is Black history month.”

Henderson did, too.

“We deserve this,” she said, the opening of her Black English Bookstore just 10 minutes away. The name came to her while reading James Baldwin’s 1979 essay in The New York Times: “If Black English isn’t a language, then tell me what is?”

Black authors, she said, deserve “more than just one shelf in a store.”

It was silent inside but soon, she hoped, it would be filled with chatter and the oohs and aahs of community members who saw themselves reflected in the posters on the walls and books on the shelves.

“This is special,” Tampa resident Troy Johnson said of Henderson's new store. He tracks Black-owned bookstores across the country. His website, African American Literature Book Club, lists seven in Florida.
“This is special,” Tampa resident Troy Johnson said of Henderson's new store. He tracks Black-owned bookstores across the country. His website, African American Literature Book Club, lists seven in Florida. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

She thumbed through a guest book in one corner, brimming with messages from the night before, when she’d hosted a welcome event. Its pages were filled with loopy cursive encouragement (“keep reaching for more”) and gratitude (“all great things start in a bookstore”).

“Bless this space,” a friend had said, as visitors dipped their heads in prayer. “May there be discussions. May there be camaraderie.”

Among them stood Troy Johnson, a Tampa resident who tracks Black-owned bookstores across the country. His website, African American Literature Book Club, lists seven in Florida.

“This is special,” he said. “I don’t often get to be in these kinds of stores.”

Now, a few minutes before the opening, a crowd was growing at the corner. Students, friends, neighbors, churchgoers.

And Fred Hearns, who has dedicated decades to sharing a fuller picture of the city’s past, most recently as curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

“Our children need this,” he said later. “If you fall in love with reading young, you’ll be reading all your life.”

Inside, Henderson straightened the figurines of Black graduates, donning caps and gowns and perched on a top shelf.

“Thirty seconds,” her daughter said. “It’s time.”

“OK, baby,” she replied.

With that, they swung open the door.

“Good morning, good morning,” Henderson said. With a smile and waving arms, she beckoned them. Come in.