5th Graders Magnify History Of Tampa Heights

The eager 5th graders at B.C. Graham Elementary School swoop up the magnifying glasses and zoom in on the documents spread across the tables in the media center. They are apprentice detectives searching for clues to the past amid old-fashioned scribblings on the photocopies of the 1930 census.

These modern-day Sherlock Holmeses do not have crime in their sights. They want to discover how their school and neighborhood came to life at the turn of the 20th century and who now lives in the bungalows and Victorians on the tree-shaded streets of the city's oldest suburb -- Tampa Heights -- just north of downtown.

The area today immediately surrounding Graham Elementary is known as Riverside Heights, but early on, the city's first neighborhood took root on Tampa's high ground, the heights on the north bank of the Hillsborough River.

The area became home to many of Tampa's founding families as well as fertile ground for a growing white middle class.

About 35 Graham elementary students are snooping through history as part of a service learning project, a pilot effort by the Tampa History Center to show students how to pull together snapshots of local history and understand how the past connects to the present. Their research will be archived at the History Center and posted on the Tampa Heights Civic Association's website.

Getting To Know The Neighborhood

Ceejay Liberatore, age 11, is  amazed at what he and his partner, Cerbando Mondragon, also age 11, discover about the life of Evelyn Davis, who is identified in the census as the 54-year-old widow of Samuel Davis. She was born in New Jersey but lived in Tampa in 1930-31 with her adult children in a bungalow on Warren Avenue. Davis's daughter was a nurse, possibly employed at Dr. H.M. Cook's Sanitarium; her son was an electrician who worked for the telephone company.

"It tells you basically their whole life," says Ceejay of the census data.

Students scan through the census noting the usual facts about age, race and sex but some items seem oddities to 5th graders separated in time from the Davis family by more than seven decades. Did Davis own a radio? She did. Did she and her grown children know how to read and write? They did.

For little more than a month, students at Graham hone in on a four-block street grid encircling their historical school on Massachusetts Avenue. Founded in 1922, it was named for former Hillsborough County School Superintendent Benjamin Chalmers Graham.

They start with an enlarged copy of a Sanborn map and with guidance from history center volunteers and teachers  pair off into teams to research the available data. Each team is assigned a randomly chosen person to investigate.

On walking tours of the neighborhood they note architectural styles of houses, from bungalows to Victorians to Spanish stucco. They snap photographs of the individual houses where their individual or family once lived. They get lessons in deciphering census data, maps and city directories, and create posters with photos and data on the neighborhood's history.

"You learn more and more stuff you can use. It's interesting," says 11-year-old Precious Oliver. She finds out about the Marcadis family who lived on Woodrow Avenue.

Census records show the Marcadises immigrated from Jerusalem in the early 1900s. The family operated several businesses in Tampa including a dry-goods store in Ybor City and a taxi service.

Past Meets Present

Samuel Marcadis, 86, visits the 5th grade class to talk about his memories of Woodrow Avenue and attending Graham Elementary in the second grade.

"He loved it," says his son, attorney Ralph Marcadis who also visits the class. "The kids did the research and we learned a lot from them. Some information they gave us we never had."

On Euclid Avenue, Hugh MacFarlane owned a modest home where today many houses are listed in county records as part of the Hugh MacFarlane subdivision. "He was famous. He was a lawyer," says 11-year-old Kenya Atwood. "I think it's great to give people the history about who lived in their house in 1931."

She learns that the Scotsman founded what became the city of West Tampa, later annexed by the city of Tampa. He brought cigar factories to the west banks of the river and gave employment to thousands. He was Tampa's city attorney and MacFarlane Park is named for him.

They all learn that time brings changes.

The neighborhood where the students live and go to school is much more racially and ethnically diverse than the one they are researching. New homeowners are moving into Riverside Heights, Tampa Heights and nearby South Seminole Heights and renovating what are now historical bungalows.
There are other signs in the broader neighborhood that history is being preserved even as new development is planned along the river.

The city is redesigning Water Works Park. The Columbia Restaurant Group is almost ready to open Ulele Restaurant next to fresh, flowing waters from the unplugged Ulele Spring. And, developers are in planning stages for construction of a mixed-use commercial and residential project in the same area.

As history, this is a project that can take on a life of its own.

"I very much want to find a school every year from now on until we exhaust the 1930s," says Marsha Quinn, a docent, or volunteer, with the history center. "The tools to do it are here. We think in modern ways now but all of the history doesn't mean anything until we can do something modern with it. If we can give this back to the community, this is good."

Great American Teach-In Connection

Among other historical Tampa schools from the 1920s and 30s are Gorrie Elementary in South Tampa and Cleveland Elementary in Seminole Heights.

Tampa Heights Civic association members haven't seen the data yet but President Brian Seel says, "We're excited the students are learning about their neighborhood. And, it will take everyone back to what the overall history of the neighborhood was."

It was an invitation to speak at last year's Great American Teach-In that brought Quinn to Graham Elementary. A conversation between Quinn and 5th grade teacher Tonya Mack led to the collaboration between the History Center and school staff. Graham Media Specialist John Perry in particular provided input and guidance for the project.

Mack plans to place the students' posters and research on display at Graham so everyone who attends the school, or stops by to visit, can see what was accomplished. The next crop of 5th graders can take up where this project left off.

"It gives them a sense of community and a sense of pride for the community," Mack says. "What we're doing this year we can build on."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.