TAMPA — A coalition of civic activists led by Tax Collector Doug Belden and businessman Marvin Knight hopes to restore the historic Jackson House.
“They have uplifted my heart,” said Willie Robinson Jr., whose family has owned the rooming house for more than 100 years. “A lot of people that I didn’t know are coming together to see the project done and finished.”
City code enforcement inspectors say the house, a remnant of segregation-era Tampa, is in such disrepair that it might collapse. Last month, city officials gave Robinson 30 days to shore up the structure or face daily fines.
Robinson said he doesn’t fault the city, which “has been working with me very well.”
Complete repairs to the Jackson House have ranged from just less than $1 million to $1.5 million, based on estimates from Bracken Engineering Inc.
“I think it’s possible to get it done,” said Belden, Hillsborough County’s tax collector. He anticipates raising money privately from donations and grants.
Robinson has established The Jackson House Foundation and is awaiting approval as a charity that can offer tax deductions for donations.
Belden and Knight expect to meet soon with Mayor Bob Buckhorn, code enforcement officials, Robinson and others to explain their intentions and get a campaign rolling to save the Jackson House.
Belden says he is following the example of public service set by his grandfather, dentist Ed Flynn, who would donate his services to people when they couldn’t afford to pay.
“He taught me the importance of helping people out,” Belden said. “It’s personal to me.”
Knight said they anticipate roofers, carpenters, people “from all levels” to volunteer in the project.
The 112-year-old house, at 851 Zack St., is the last relic of a city street and a community that once bustled with commerce and life. During segregation, it was one of a few establishments where black visitors to Tampa could find lodging.
Entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and James Brown are among people who stayed there when they performed at venues on Central Avenue.
The house sits today isolated and surrounded by county parking lots. Highway widening projects in the 1970s destroyed much of the Central Avenue district of black-owned businesses, restaurants and night clubs.
Robinson has struggled for years to preserve the rooming house but has few financial resources. He worked to get the house on the National Register of Historic Places.
The house is also listed on the state’s Black Heritage Trail and has local designation as a historic landmark.
Robinson’s maternal grandmother, Sarah Jackson, was the original owner of the 24-room boarding house, built in the early 1900s. Jackson also owned the Jackson Cab Co., Tampa’s only black-owned taxi service in the 1930s.
Robinson’s mother, Sarah Robinson, inherited the Jackson House and operated it until her death in 2006 at age 89.
“She was very influential to a lot of us,” said Knight. “She offered words of encouragement to us.”
Preserving the house is a way to hold onto history, he said.
“I like history. I believe in trying to preserve all history, not just African-American history.”