Historic church will become Tampa's Black History Museum

The Tampa Housing Authority has long eyed the historic St. James Episcopal Church building in downtown Tampa as the potential home of a Black history museum. 

As the Housing Authority razed the Central Park Village public housing community and developed the mixed-use, mixed-income Encore district, the agency renovated the historic circa 1921 church building.

Last Juneteenth, the museum moved closer to reality when the Housing Authority and the Tampa Bay History Center partnered to launch St James @ Encore, a History Center initiative offering cultural, historical and educational events and programs at the church building. 

This Juneteenth, it’s official. The museum is happening. The Housing Authority and History Center have announced that St. James @ Encore will become Tampa’s Black History Museum, a showcase for exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of Tampa’s rich Black history and culture.

Preserving and celebrating Tampa’s Black history 

During a June 17th ceremony at St. James, the History Center’s Curator of Black History Fred Hearns says the church building, at 1213 N. Central Ave., may be the perfect location for the museum. 

Tampa Bay History CenterHistoric St. James Episcopal Church will become Tampa's Black History Museum under a partnership between the Tampa Bay History Center and the Tampa Housing Authority.Besides its own historic significance, St. James stands in the area that was once The Scrub, Tampa’s oldest and largest African-American neighborhood and a community where formerly enslaved people lived. Later, there was Central Park Village, the public housing community that opened during segregation and stood for more than 50 years. 

The Central Avenue corridor was once the heart of a thriving Black business and entertainment district dubbed the “Harlem of the South.” In the late 1940s, Ray Charles lived and recorded his very first record a “stone’s throw” from St. James, Hearns says. For $2.50, you could hear jazz legend Louis Armstrong play the trumpet in the clubs on Central Avenue. Tampa became a “second home” to soul legend James Brown because of his close relationship with Central Avenue business owner and civil rights activist Moses White, Hearns says.

“We don’t have to look very far to find history,” he says.

Civil rights leader Robert W. “Bob” Saunders Sr., who grew up in West Tampa, returned to the city after serving in the military during World War II to write “Central Avenue Buckshot,” a column in the Florida Sentinel Bulletin that chronicled life on Central Avenue, according to the University of South Florida Libraries. 

Later, Saunders again returned to Tampa to serve as the NAACP field director for Florida after the Ku Klux Klan murdered the state’s first NAACP field director, Harry T. Moore, and his wife Harriette Moore.

“Imagine taking a job where your predecessor had been assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan,” Hearns says. “How many of you would be willing to take that job, to leave Detroit, come back to Tampa and take a job as the head of ther NAACP in 1952, when it was very dangerous to do? Bob Saunders did. He kept that job for 14 years and did an excellent job.”Christopher CurryTampa Bay History Center Curator of Black History Fred Hearns

At the July 17th event, State Rep. Diane Hart says that, with Juneteenth just days away, she’s reminded that St. James was a cornerstone of a historic neighborhood formerly enslaved people once called home.

“The establishment of this history museum will ensure that, despite efforts to make us forget about America’s original sin of slavery, discrimination and the violence perpetrated against Black people, future generations will not only learn about these horrible events but learn from them,” Hart says.

The museum should have a natural connection with the adjacent Perry Harvey Sr. Park, where public art installations tell the story of prominent people and events in Tampa’s Black history. That city park showcasing Tampa’s Black history and culture has faced challenges over the last several months.

Last October, several murals in the park were vandalized, their thick glass tiles smashed. The City of Tampa brought in the artwork’s original artist, Rufus Butler Seder, and his team to restore the murals. This month, Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed $500,000 to build an amphitheater at the park from the state budget.

“I was devastated,” Tampa City Council member Gwen Henderson says during the June 17th event. “It was like a loss. It was almost like I lost a campaign or something. I just felt so horrible because I was so excited that I would be able to share that with the community.”Tampa Bay History CenterTampa City Council member Gwen Henderson speaks during the event announcing Tampa's Black History Museum.

But Henderson says she’s talking with the Tampa Downtown Partnership and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who also spoke at the June 17th event, about alternatives to make the amphitheater project happen.

Moving forward

Right now, the Tampa Bay History Center is in the early stages of planning exhibits for the museum. They are gathering public input and seeking historical artifacts, oral histories and ambassadors who will help with programming and greeting visitors.

For more information, go to Tampa's Black History Museum

For prior stories, go to Ashley Morrow: Shining a light on Tampa's Black history
and Tampa Housing Authority, Tampa Bay History Center partner at historic St. James Episcopal Church
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.