Tampa Bay History Center's "Travails and Triumphs" journeys into Black history of Tampa Bay

Fred Hearns, Curator of Black History at the Tampa Bay History Center, has spent the last 25 years researching the history of the Black experience in the Tampa Bay area.

It’s gratifying for him to see the newest permanent exhibit at the history center, “Travails and Triumphs,” tracing 500 years of Black history in the area.

“This is the first Black history museum component to this magnitude that we’ve ever had in Tampa,’’ he says. 

The exhibit launched with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday, June 2nd, and is now open to the public.

What Hearns likes most about the show is its reach, going back to when enslaved Black people were brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers.
“For every one African brought to what is now the United States, there were probably eight or nine brought to the Caribbean and to South America,’’ he says. “Because that’s where this story starts, that’s the part I’m really excited about.’’

Among the more than 100 artifacts on display are an 1856 handwritten lease for a 37-year-old enslaved woman and her three children in Tampa; a Civil War-era map showing the disbursement of enslaved people in the U.S.; a pot and pan from the Woolworth’s store in downtown Tampa, where Black protestors staged a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter on Feb. 29, 1960; and a huge cloth-and-leather covered patient register for Tampa Negro Hospital. 

The exhibit tells the story of John Cavallo, known as John Horse, who was a Black Seminole leader during the Second Seminole War. It features important Black women in Tampa Bay area history, among them Clara Frye, a nurse in the early 20th Century who established a hospital in her home to treat Black patients; Fortune Taylor, former enslaved person and early Black land-owner in downtown Tampa; and Ann Lowe, a fashion designer who opened her first shop in Tampa and rose to fame, eventually designing dresses for Jacqueline Kennedy.

Brad Massey, the Saunders Foundation Curator of Public History at the museum, says the staff did not want to just focus on the 20th Century or the modern civil rights movement.

"We wanted to talk about the first people of African descent that traveled with the Spanish explorers. That way we can give a comprehensive history to visitors that come to the history center,’’ he says.

“So what you’re going to learn about is people that were enslaved that came over with the Hernando de Soto expedition in the 1500s, and then you’re going to learn about people who escaped enslavement in the British Carolinas and Georgia in the 1700s and the 1800s,” Massey says. “A lot of these people established maroon communities. They married into Seminole Indian tribes, and then ultimately a lot of them are going to fight a war against the U.S. military, resisting removal and re-enslavement.”

"Travails and Triumphs" is the Tampa Bay History Center's first permanent exhibit dedicated to Black history.The exhibit covers the struggle to create thriving Black communities during the Jim Crow era, the civil rights movement and segregated schools, including Tampa’s two Black high schools, Blake and Middleton, up to modern times – on display are signs from the Black Lives Matter protests in Tampa.

In introductory remarks at the June 2nd ribbon-cutting, Tampa Bay History Center President and CEO C.J. Roberts says that the center has always worked to “ensure our exhibits are inclusive, are relevant and are meaningful.’’ Curators and staff worked for the last three years planning and designing the show, and Roberts congratulated them on bringing “the stories to life.’’

Curtis Stokes, chairman of the board of trustees for the center, spoke, as did representatives of TECO, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners and the Tampa Bay Lightning, which each donated funds to help create the exhibit. 

Hearns says he was able to acquire about 20 percent of the artifacts through his connections to the community, friends and classmates from growing up in Tampa. He contributed his own Middleton High School jacket to the museum and talked others into giving up keepsakes.

“I said, ‘Fifty years from now your grandkids may not even know where this jacket is, or this class ring, whatever. Give them to the history center; they’ll always be preserved and on display.’’’

The high school jackets were among the items that really stood out for Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers, who spoke at the June 2nd event.

“It just brought memories back to my mind of how we played football back when we were all together,” she says. “I was in the band. And just to see my old alma mater, Blake High School. I was just elated just to see it.”

“But (the exhibit) also tells the rich history of how African Americans have contributed to our community and how we labored to make things happen,’’ Myers adds. “And our story still lives today and is not forgotten, and that’s the beauty of this whole program this morning.’’

For more information, go to Tampa Bay History Center

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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.