Restoration of Tampa’s historic Jackson House gains traction

Sarah Jackson Robinson of Tampa tasked her son with keeping one promise: Save the Jackson House from destruction.

For years after her death in 2006, Willie Robinson, Jr. and his 91-year-old cousin Johnnie Saunders, did everything they could to stop time, weather, and the wrecking ball from wiping away the last signpost of Tampa’s black history in the Central Avenue district.

The 24-room boarding house at 851 Zack St. is what remains of that once vibrant business and entertainment district. When Jim Crow laws and whites-only hotels shut the doors to black lodgers, the Jackson House gave them a safe place and a bed for the night.

Those guests often included the crème of black entertainers who performed in Central Avenue nightclubs -- Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and James Brown.

In the 1960s and 70s, urban renewal and state highways laid waste to the brick and mortar of the Central Avenue district and the neighborhood pioneered by freed slaves -- known as the Scrub.

Saunders remembers historical Central Avenue as the hub of the “town” for Tampa’s black residents.

Grocers, dry cleaners, law offices, rooming houses, dental practices, theaters, and nightclubs vanished amid the so-called progress brought by highway construction.

“It was like going to town,” Saunders says. “It was everything we needed. All we wanted. We all knew each other.”

$1M grant begins restoration process, more needed

Today the Jackson House survives, laying shaky claim beneath a blue tarp to a bare plot of land surrounded by a parking lot and a garage, along Zack Street and a short distance from the Union Station rail line.

And Sarah Jackson Robinson’s wish is at last on more solid ground, within reach of a promise fulfilled.

A $1 million grant from the Vinik Family Foundation (Tampa Bay Lightning Owner Jeff Vinik and his wife Penny Vinik) to the nonprofit The Jackson House Foundation, Inc., is funding the initial push to restore the boarding house. Its revival as an African-American museum and cultural center will memorialize for the public the rich history, music, and culture of Central Avenue and the Scrub.
“It brings back memories of what we used to do,” says Saunders of her former home.  “It would also stand for the black community as a remembrance of what we used to do. I think it kind of helps a lot of people know we’re not forgotten as a black group of people.”

Modern technology is at the forefront of saving a house built more than a century ago. Last year University of South Florida researchers glided drones through the unstable boarding house, producing a 3-D laser scan that will serve as a digital map and a guide for engineers in reconstructing the historical structure.

Not all of the house is salvageable after so many years of neglect.

Fragments and pieces of the wood frame boarding house might be preserved. What cannot be saved will be replicated. The images are so fine and precise that they reveal fingerprints on the wallpaper, ghostly imprints of past lives.
“The house will go through a transformation,” says Lori Collins, co-Director of USF’s Digital Heritage and Humanities Collection. “However, we want to stay true to the historical nature of the home.”

The 3-D images are being processed and architectural data collected, she says. Initial work at the house in September included a cleaning out of accumulated debris building up over the years, she added.

Decorative elements, such as doorknobs, are in storage. Years ago, the city of Tampa stored away bricks from a chimney.
Restoration could take as long as two years with the final cost undetermined.

Photos, stories from long-time residents can help restore history

Carolyn Collins, as chair of the nonprofit Jackson House Foundation, is leading community efforts toward a new future built on a proud history.

Willie Robinson, who died in 2019, served on the board of directors and helped in founding the nonprofit. He talks about the importance of saving the Jackson house in this 2014 PSA created by the NAACP.

“We need this history,” says Collins. “We’ve lost so much history in downtown Tampa. It generates respect for people who made this history.”

COVID-19 halted plans for in-person community outreach nearly a year ago. But fund-raising efforts are on-going and future events are in the planning stages.

The Tampa Bay History Center hosted a webinar at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 17, with Collins, and Historians Fred Hearns, Brad Massey, and Rodney Kite-Powell as panelists for Florida Conversations: Jackson House Update.
Florida Conversations is sponsored by USF Libraries Florida Studies Center and WUSF Public Media.

The history center is assisting in data collection and designs for interactive exhibits for the Jackson House.

“There might be some portion of the house that has to be dismantled,” Massey says. The goal is to preserve enough to stay within regulations for historical places, he added.

“It speaks to a neighborhood that got obliterated by urban renewal, he says. “It harkens back to the historical time and place that we don’t have anymore.” 

He is hoping the community at large can help recreate that lost history.

“What we really want to do at the history center is reach out and ask if people in the community have photos,” says Massey.

Remembering the contributions of Central Avenue, Black-owned businesses

Sarah Jackson Robinson shuttered her establishment in 1989. She inherited the boarding house from her mother who was a businesswoman and matriarch to an entrepreneurial family. Their legacy epitomizes the spirit of Central Avenue. They operated a laundry, a taxi service, and a barbershop. 

Moses Jackson bought the property in 1903 as a family home but later added rooms to create a boarding house. It was the heart of family life and business. Music always filled the Jackson House, says Saunders, who grew up there with Robinson.
There was a piano in the hallway, Saunders says. “All of us had piano lessons,” she says. “It was a matter of how we grew up.”

Late at night, she sat on the stairs as musicians who performed at clubs on Central Avenue held after-hours jam sessions in the hallway or from one of the 24 rooms to rent. 

“What I really remember was when [musicians] would all get together and played music,” she says. “We’d sit on the stairs and hear them play until somebody would chase us away.”

Robinson and Saunders struggled for years to get the attention and support of city leaders to save the Jackson House.

Code enforcement citations came close to ushering in a wrecking ball in 2013.

But at crucial moments, helping hands reached out to keep the house from vanishing like every other business in the district.

“I’m understanding people are donating more,” Saunders says. “I’ve given all I could. So many people contributed. So many people helped.”

Whenever obstacles came up, Carolyn Collins says, “Looks like God sent us two to three angels with this project.”

Much more money will be needed to complete Willie Robinson’s promise to his mother, but the project is on firmer ground than ever before.

Saunders and Robinson worked to put The Jackson House on the list for the National Registry of Historic Places. The city of Tampa also designated the house as a “distinguished landmark.”

Though the interior of the house was no longer habitable, Robinson delighted in the hours spent sitting on the front porch in his mother’s favorite “ponder” chair. He would engage with passersby, and now and then, a tourist exploring historic sites. In an interview with The Tampa Tribune years ago, he recalled visitors from The Netherlands who had learned through the Internet about the famous Jackson House.

Saunders says her son and daughter often drive her past the house.

“I pass there frequently. I see what was left,” she says. “I don’t ask for too much. I’d like to see us remembered in the history of Tampa and Florida.”

For more information, visit the Jackson House Foundation website.

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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.