Clock is ticking to restore Jackson House and preserve a storied piece of Tampa Black history

The great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who is credited with Van Alexander for writing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’’ reportedly worked on the song while she was staying at Tampa’s Jackson House, the boarding house for Black visitors at 851 Zack Street during the era of segregation.

“Yes sir, she did,’’ says Dr. Carolyn Collins, chairwoman of the board of the Jackson House Foundation.

Another story: Nat King Cole always planned a concert in the Tampa area before going on a tour out of the country because the boarding house owner, Willie Robinson Sr., was his barber. He sometimes took Robinson and his wife with him, Collins says, “because he wanted his barber with him.’’

Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Billie Holiday stayed there. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited there. And many who weren’t celebrities. Train porters from nearby Union Station and visitors to the Black business district on Central Avenue also roomed there.

Now it looks as if the 24-room boarding house, built at the turn of the 20th century, could collapse at any moment. The Jackson House Foundation wants to rebuild it as it was and make it a Black history museum, and it looked like all the obstacles had been removed last October when the city of Tampa and the owners of 717 Parking next door agreed to swap property in order to provide the required easements on each side of the Jackson House for emergency vehicles.

But not all the specifics have been finalized. Details have yet to be worked out between 717 Parking and the foundation, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

“It’s not really between us and them totally,’’ Collins says in an interview with 83 Degrees. But she isn’t disclosing details.

“We’re probably further along than we’ve ever been before, and we’re looking at an amendment they’ve had while we make sure that what we’re looking at is in the best interest of Jackson House.’’

She says the foundation, parking company and the city have been “trying to make sure that we can quickly come to some kind of resolution.’’

Meanwhile, the Tampa City Council has asked for updates on the plans for renovation, but the parties making the presentation, the foundation, the Tampa Bay History Center and University of South Florida, have asked for several postponements, the latest at the Feb. 15 council meeting. It was rescheduled for May 2.

Dominique Cobb, chairwoman of the Tampa Historic Preservation Board, who attended the Feb. 15 council meeting, has also requested updates from the historic preservation staff.

“Unfortunately, I have not received a reply back from staff,’’ she says, speaking outside the council chambers. “I’m eagerly waiting because we’ve been waiting six months-plus for that update. Also, with what’s on the record today I was hoping to get briefed beforehand or see what’s happening, but that did not happen.”

“Hopefully we can get some type of resolution because we know the storm season is coming up. The Jackson House is not stabilized right now,” Cobb adds. 

Collins says the downstairs was stabilized by an engineering company about eight years ago, and the upstairs was stabilized about three years ago. It has a bad roof, siding is falling off and the house looks like it’s folding in half “but you still have great stabilization,’’ she says.

“It’s important to us to make sure that we make it clear that if the house fell down we’re going to rebuild it,’’ she says. “We feel that it is that important for the history of the city of Tampa, the county, the state and the United States because far too often too much been lost.’’

The house holds many stories. Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center, says in an email that he was present when the late owner, Sarah Jackson Robinson, told of Ella Fitzgerald writing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket’’ while rooming there.

“Mrs. Robinson’s son, Willie Robinson (who is also deceased), told me that Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. visited the house and walked around inside the building,’’ he says. “A granddaughter of Moses Jackson, the man who built the house, Johnnie Saunders, told me… that she remembered Cab Calloway frightening her dog when he visited the Jackson House.’’

Hearns points out, however, that “I have seen no documentation to verify these
comments made years ago by Jackson House family members.’’

Collins says the musicians jammed in the large room on the first floor. The other guests watched them perform. The house had three pianos, she says.

“James Brown couldn’t stay there because he was too young, but he went there for the sets and the practice and the music," she says.
And the house teaches “economic development lessons of what one family can do,’’ she says.

“The Robinson-Jackson family had... a taxi company. They used the boarding house and also provided meals. They had a laundry service. They had a beauty shop and they also had a barber shop.’’

Funds are waiting to be used for the preservation work. Tampa Bay Lightning owner and philanthropist Jeff Vinik has donated $1 million. The State of Florida put $1.5 million toward the effort. The Tampa City Council set aside $1 million out of Community Redevelopment Area funds. And Hillsborough County has provided $500,000, Collins says.

For the Jackson House to retain its federal, state and local historical landmark designation, it has to be put back together exactly as it was.

“If it comes down to the point that we cannot build it without the codes (easements) on each side, you may see what would be a replica of the Jackson House, built at 851 (Zack St.), complying with the codes of the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County and downtown Tampa, etc. And it will not be made out of wood. Let’s say it will be made out of brick and mortar and we’ll have the facade of the wood on the side,’’ she says.

“I’m using that as an example. That is not what we’re doing, but we have accepted the fact that that house will stay there. It will be there. We will raise additional funds as need be, and the unfortunate part about it, we would lose the historical designation but we wouldn’t lose the historical site.”
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.