African-Americans have a long history in Florida, dating back to the earliest days of Spanish exploration and colonization. The first African-born person to explore what would become the southeastern United States arrived in the Tampa Bay area in 1528 as part of the ill-fated Panfilo de Narvaez expedition. Esteban, a Moorish slave, was one of only four survivors to make it all the way to Mexico's Pacific coast after a grueling 8-year trek across North America.
The numbers of black residents in the Tampa Bay area increased dramatically in the early 19th century with the arrival of the U.S. military and settlers from across the young country. By 1860, they made up about 19 percent of Hillsborough County's population — all but a very few were slaves. Forty years later, at the turn of the 20th century and during the area of black-white segregation, there were several distinct black communities in the county.
In some cases, the forced separation led to the establishment of professional services and businesses that might not otherwise have existed in the black community. Dentists, doctors and lawyers flourished, particularly in Tampa's Central Avenue business district, as did clubs, theaters and a large hotel.
Many of these early black communities — including Bealsville (near Plant City), the Dorcas Pond area near today's Tampa Union Station, Red Quarters, and Four Quarters near downtown Tampa, sections of Port Tampa City and the Town of Fort Brooke, plus a large community in northwest Hillsborough County near today's Citrus Park — are largely gone from the landscape. Another neighborhood that exists today, at least in part, is the Dobyville section of west Hyde Park.
A 1927 study found that approximately 10 percent of Tampa's blacks called Dobyville home during the 1920s. Otherwise, Hyde Park was a neighborhood of wealthy whites. Dobyville, named for longtime resident Richard Doby, was also known as West Hyde Park. The historic boundaries are roughly, beginning at the northeast corner: North Willow (at Fig Street) south to Swann, west to South Albany, north to Kennedy, east to Rome, north to Fig and back east to North Willow.
Dobyville had several churches and two schools, one public and one private. The Dobyville School, formerly located on South Dakota Avenue was, like Tampa's other black public schools, terribly under-funded and neglected by the school board. The school's lunchroom was condemned in the late 1940s, but children still attended until 1966. The structure was torn down to make way for the Crosstown Expressway.
Two railroad lines ran through the neighborhood and influenced its development, perhaps were even the reason for its existence. One was Henry B. Plant's original 1889 rail extension across the Hillsborough River and through the Interbay Peninsula to Port Tampa. It still exists. Another, a spur line which ran north along Rome Avenue, has been removed. Warehouses on Rome Avenue, both north and south, and the bakery at 420 S. Dakota Ave. utilized the lines.
The last surviving church in the neighborhood, Mount Zion AME Church, was located at 111 S. Dakota Ave. Constructed in the 1910s, it stood as a reminder of the neighborhood's past while gazing wearily at its possible future — a fast-food restaurant on the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and South Dakota. Now it, too, has drifted into Dobyville's past, replaced by new residential construction.
Construction of the Crosstown Expressway (now the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway) dealt a crushing blow to Dobyville and much of the Hyde Park area. Large construction projects, such as the former Ferman Automobile dealership and the Wal Mart on Kennedy Boulevard, sit atop large plots of land that once held homes and businesses owned by Dobyville's families. Few buildings remain from the neighborhood's past, with demolition and new construction further obscuring the historic landscape.
Some reminders, including the Doby Family house at 1405 Azeele St., remain as defiant landmarks of an almost forgotten past. Another reminder, in the form of a historic marker, stands proudly on the corner of Willow and Platt streets. It's not far from the Dobyville School site and the Doby House. Its location near two neighborhood landmarks, one long-gone and the other still standing, is a symbol of the community itself.