Tampa Soulwalk celebrates Black contributions to city's history and culture

A few years back, someone suggested to Tampa Arts & Cultural Affairs Manager Robin Nigh that the city put up a monument honoring Lee Davis, the pioneering African American community leader, philanthropist and businessman who was one of the city’s first Black millionaires.

In fact, the city did have a historical marker honoring Davis near the entrance of Leaders’ Row, the public art installation in Perry Harvey Sr. Park honoring influential Black figures in Tampa history. But that discussion and others like it got Nigh thinking about the historical markers, memorials and monuments around Tampa that highlight the contributions Black residents made in shaping the city’s community, culture and economy, often overcoming the obstacles of segregation to make an impact.

“What’s out there is done well but a lot of people don’t know it’s out there,” NIgh says. “It’s ineffective if people don’t know it’s there. It was our responsibility to pull it together and connect the dots.”

Following two years of work with community partners, the city has connected the dots with Tampa Soulwalk, an African American arts and heritage trail that covers 46 miles and includes more than 100 historical markers, historic buildings and pieces of art. To celebrate Black History Month, Tampa officials unveiled Soulwalk during a February 22nd event at Perry Harvey Sr. Park. 

The park was a perfect setting to launch Soulwalk. It sits in the former Central Avenue Business District, the thriving economic center of The Scrub, which was Tampa’s oldest and largest African American neighborhood. Throughout the park, public art installations tell the story of prominent people and events in Tampa’s Black history.

During comments at the event, Mayor Jane Castor says it’s important to learn and preserve history to celebrate its accomplishments and avoid repeating its mistakes. 

“This is a monumental undertaking,” Castor says about the effort creating the city’s Black heritage trail.

Florida Humanities, Visit Tampa Bay, the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa, Hillsborough Community College and Hillsborough County all worked alongside the city on the project. Professors from the University of South Florida authored essays to add context to the trail and historians with the Tampa Bay History Center produced interpretive content. An interactive online map shows the stops on the trail, with photos and a detailed historical explanation of their importance. 

The Jackson House, a segregation-era boarding house where legendary musicians Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and James Brown stayed, is one stop. Some other historic places include the two remaining homes from the original Scrub neighborhood, the site of the historic Harlem Academy, which was known as "The Mother of African- American Schools," the historic Dobyville neighborhood and St. Paul African Methodist Church. Some prominent figures in Tampa history the trail spotlights are Madame Fortune Taylor, the freed slave, property owner and community leader who made land available for a bridge connecting east and west Tampa; C. Blythe Andrews, the publisher of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper; and George E. Edgecomb, the first Black circuit judge in Tampa.

Right now, Tampa Soulwalk is a compilation of the historical markers and locations already spread around the city. Future plans involve two dozen more pieces of public art, workshops and public events with artists and historians and a Tampa Soulwalk community cookbook.

Ida Walker, the longtime senior executive assistant at the Tampa Police Department, says the community cookbook will mix family recipes passed down from generation to generation with family stories and cultural traditions. She recalled her own experience growing up in Central Park Village, when neighbors and Black school teachers were like extended family and Friday fish fries and cooking all day Saturday for a family meal on Sunday were family traditions. In so many of those meals, dishes and ingredients like chitlins, gizzards, turkey butt and pig’s feet dated back to Black people making delicious meals out of the scraps slave owners would throw away, Walker says.

Nigh says the launch of Tampa Soulwalk is a starting point, not the finish.

“It's not my story, but it is a story that needs to be told,” she says. “So I say, ‘We’ll set the table, you all bring the food.’ That’s basically it. Let’s set it up so it is sustainable. People can build on it.”

For more information, go to Tampa Soulwalk.
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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.