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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018
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Robinson student brings digital life to yesterday’s Central Avenue

TAMPA — It has been 40 years since bulldozers mowed under the stretch of Central Avenue between Ybor City and downtown — once the hub of Tampa’s African-American community.

“Harlem of the South” it was called in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, when it hosted top entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, and civil rights activists including Tampa’s Alton White.

Historians, as always, have taken stock of the big names and special places. The names of everyday people, on the other hand, had largely faded into obscurity — until now.

Working with the Tampa History Center, 17-year-old Robinson High School senior Mary Elizabeth Johnson has provided a snapshot of Central Avenue in 1931, one the eve of its heyday, through an interactive online map featuring stories of people and businesses who would build it into a thriving district.

The map, at tampacentralave.org, doesn’t include the nightclubs Central Avenue was known for because Prohibition was still the law in 1931.

Johnson will unveil the project 4 p.m. Saturday at the Seminole Heights Library.

“This is a new way to teach history,” she said. “I’m proud of it.”

“A community is a community because of all the people involved with it,” said Marsha Quinn, a docent with the History Center who worked with Johnson. “By learning about everyone, we get the best sense of what life was like there.”

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Clicking a numbered lot on the map reveals a window showing the name of the residents along with their ages, ethnicities and occupations.

Sherman Porter, for example, was an African-American track greaser for TECO, lived at 1606 Central Ave., and was married to Amy Porter. If the address is a business, its purpose and owner are listed.

Photos of buildings are included when available, such as the Helping Hand Day Nursery, Kemp Meat Market and Palace Drug Store.

To create the interactive record, Johnson digitally scanned Central Avenue’s 1931 Sanborn Map — large-scale, lithograph street plans dating to the mid-1800s. She then matched up each address on the map with information from census records and the 1931 Tampa City Directory — a listing of residents, streets, businesses, organizations or institutions.

Next, she looked for photos through the Burgert Brothers Photographic Collections — an archive of more than 15,000 photos documenting the Tampa Bay area and Florida’s West coast from the late 1800s to the early 1960s .

Finally, she added links that give further detail about the history.

1931 was chosen because both the Sanborn Map and City Directory were in print at the time.

The information currently available on the interactive map, Quinn said, is a starting point, not the finish.

“There is no limit to what we can do with this now,” said Quinn.

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She now wants those with knowledge of Central Avenue to share information that can be added to the map — photos and personal stories, who worked or lived in some of the buildings still unidentified on the map.

Videos and oral histories can be added, too, activated by a click of the mouse.

“This was a diverse community in terms of personalities,” said Central Avenue historian Fred Hearns. “It had dentists and lawyers and bakers – all who worked together to create this special place. We have the names thanks to Mary. Now I look forward to learning all their stories.”

Born out of Jim Crow laws that forbade African-Americans from doing business in white downtown, Central Avenue once boasted more than 100 small businesses.

It is best known historically for its post-Prohibition nightlife, as the place that invented “The Twist” and hosted musical legends of the day.

The demise of Central Avenue began with the end of segregation. When African-Americans were allowed to frequent other communities, patronage slipped there.

A riot in 1967 damaged some of the buildings and neglect destroyed others.

The federal government denied the city grants to rebuild the Central Avenue. The city did receive money, though, to demolish Central Avenue and turn part of it into Perry Harvey Park — named for one of Tampa’s best-known civil rights activists.

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Johnson is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at Robinson High School. Creating the map fulfills the requirement for students to participate in a community partnership.

“This is master’s level work – not high school,” historian Hearns said. “What she has done is amazing.”

Johnson said she is leaving future work on the base map to others and is excited to see what else turns up.

“I wasn’t familiar with Central Avenue before I began my research,” she said. “It was educational.”

Her post-high school plans are centered on history, in college and as a career.

So she contacted the history center about volunteer opportunities, expecting she’d be doing filing or other tasks.

“Within 10 minutes of meeting Mary, I knew she could handle an important job,” said docent Quinn. “I’ve been looking for someone to help with the mapping.”

The initiative began four years ago when Quinn created a packet of information using historical archives from 1899 for the section of Ybor City spanning 8th and 12th avenues and 12th and 15th streets.

The Ybor project is richer in information than the Central Avenue project, but it’s still all on paper.

In addition to professions, for example, it includes specific duties of certain jobs, how they were performed in that era, their importance to the community and some personal ancedotes.

Quinn said classrooms throughout Hillsborough County borrow the Ybor map and assign students oral reports on certain homes, businesses or entire blocks. By the end of the assignment, the students have a detailed understanding of life in Ybor City in 1899.

“I chose Central Avenue for Mary because information was available to us and because it is an important part of Tampa’s history that needs to be taught to students,” Quinn said.

Originally, Johnson was to create a paper map and packet only.

But after this was finished, she and Quinn decided to take it interactive.

Now Quinn hopes to use Johnson’s template with the Ybor City research.

“We look forward to building upon her hard work,” Quinn said. “She gave us the foundation we needed.”

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