TAMPA — Central Avenue was once the center of black life in Tampa. Now historians want to share its rich history and preserve its spirit for generations to come.
Built by emancipated slaves and freemen, Central Avenue was the heart of The Scrub, the first African-American neighborhood in Tampa.
With as many as 200 black-owned businesses on and around it, Central Avenue thrived for years.
This changed in 1967 with the death of 19-year-old Martin Chambers who was suspected of burglary and killed by police. His death sparked riots that lasted three days and ultimately destroyed Central Avenue.
Fred Hearns, noted historian and Tampa local, leads tours that highlight the cultural significance and history of the area.
Hearns works in partnership with the Tampa Bay History Center to host these tours on the last Saturday of every month, aside from some summer months.
The tour explores Central Avenue as it is today. It begins at the Robert Saunders Public Library on North Nebraska Avenue. The library is named after Saunders, who led the Tampa Chapter of the NAACP for many years.
There is a stone wall outside the library with paintings preserved from the building’s past. You can explore the inside of the library, which archives and displays much of the history of Central Avenue. Guests can also appreciate the $7 million renovation the library received in 2015.
The library also features a Hall of History with interactive displays that bring you into Tampa’s past. They showcase the history of black athletes, churches, small artifacts and more. It also has a library dedicated to African-American genealogy and history.
The tour then moves outside the library to Perry Harvey Sr. Park. Larger than life statues and history carved into the sidewalk, the park tells Central Avenue’s story. The displays are thanks to a $6.3 million renovation that took place in 2016.
The park features sections of optical tiles that change as you walk by them. There is also a walkway known as Leader Row. Stained concrete and cut aluminum showcase notable leaders from Central Avenue.
Nancy Dalence, Curator of Education at the Tampa Bay History Center, has worked closely with Hearns since the tours began in fall 2016. She says Hearns is one of the best black history historians in the area who brings his own accounts to the tour.
“Everybody [who] has been on the tour has just been amazed at how much history they didn’t know,” Dalence said.
“[There’s] just so many connections to great stories and it’s a really important part of our history. People just didn’t know it was here, and thanks to Fred, now they do.”
To sign up or learn more about these tours and others, you can visit www.tampabayhistorycenter.org.