Tampa Housing Authority, Tampa Bay History Center partner at historic St. James Episcopal Church

For years, the Tampa Housing Authority has envisioned utilizing historic St. James Episcopal Church in its Encore district as a museum showcasing the rich African-American history of Tampa.

The Housing Authority may have the perfect partner to see that vision through in the Tampa Bay History Center. But first, the Housing Authority and History Center will test the waters with a six-month pilot program to offer educational and historical programming at the historic church. That initiative begins Juneteenth with a talk by civil rights activist Bernard LaFayette Jr.

“We decided to start that journey by partnering to start activating that building and getting community input on what type of events and historical displays the community would like to see in that facility,” Tampa Housing Authority Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leroy Moore says.

Bringing in community programming, and potentially a museum, to the renovated, historic brick church built in 1921 will honor the history of the building and the Black communities that once stood on the site of Encore while adding to the diverse mixed-use community that redevelopment has brought, Moore says.

The property was home to The Scrub, which was Tampa’s oldest and largest African-American neighborhood, and later Central Park Village, the public housing complex that opened during segregation and stood for more than 50 years.

“We think it will be a unique experience to go back into this rich history while surrounded by what is now a modern, diverse community,” Moore says. “You’re surrounded by new infrastructure, new buildings, a very diverse community unlike this neighborhood has ever seen before. This neighborhood has always been a segregated neighborhood from The Scrub to Central Park Village.”

Today, Encore is a mixed-use, mixed-income development with affordable housing, market-rate apartments and retail space. The private investment includes luxury apartment developments Legacy Encore and Navara at Encore. Looking ahead, Miami-based LD&D has purchased two acres from the Housing Authority with plans to develop a 28-story luxury apartment building with 369 units, a 178-room hotel and 32,500 square feet of retail.

Moore says Atlanta-based restaurant Book Boutique Cafe has also signed a lease to open up a location at Encore.

In addition to bringing more activity to the current-day Encore district, Moore says the partnership launching Juneteenth builds on existing relationships. He says he frequently turned to History Center President and CEO C.J. Roberts and Fred Hearns, the center’s Curator of Black History, for advice while the Housing Authority was working on a plan to establish St. James as an African-American museum run by an independent entity with its own board of directors. 

“I’ve been using them as unofficial advisors for five or six years,” Moore says. “They were giving me their advice on selecting museum board members and fundraising. Finally, it occurred to me, is there any interest in the History Center being our operator for this particular museum and having a second asset in the community that they could cross-promote and where they could do outreach?”

Civil rights leader Bernard LaFayette Jr.The Housing Authority also has a strong relationship with LaFayette. Moore says when he discussed the organization’s vision for a museum with LaFayette, who was raised in Tampa, took part in the Freedom Rides and held leadership positions in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights leader immediately got involved.

“He was so moved by it, he not only promised to loan us items from his private collection, he sent them to us, boxes and boxes,” Moore recalls.

He says the Housing Authority has since shipped the items back to LaFayette while it continues working to make the museum a reality. Moore says LaFayette has also gotten involved with the Housing Authority’s YouthBuild initiative, sharing his personal account of perseverance and determination in the face of racism and segregation with the teenagers and young adults in the program, which is designed to develop job and life skills in high school drop-outs and at-risk individuals ages 16-24. 

“He’s been a partner with the Housing Authority not just on this museum project but also with working to prepare the next generation, giving kids who might be headed in the wrong direction something to think about,” Moore says.

An evening with Bernard LaFayette Jr. is scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on June 19th. Liana Fernandez Fox, chair of the Tampa Bay History Center Board of Trustees Education Committee and professor emeritus at Hillsborough Community College, will serve as moderator. The event is sold out to attend in person but you can sign up to watch via Zoom.

For more information on the partnership between the Tampa Housing Authority and Tampa Bay History Center, go to St. James at Encore.
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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.