‘Harlem of the South’: Students learn how Black history helped shape Tampa

Fourth-grade teacher Marion White found a treasure trove of Black history on a Tampa street that’s gone but not forgotten.

"They established businesses, hotels, schools. They became lawyers and doctors, and it was just such a successful area for them," explained White, who teaches at Tampa Heights Elementary School in Tampa.

The Oklahoma native says she was fascinated to learn about Tampa’s Central Avenue and she is now thrilled to teach her students about it.

Central Avenue thrived from 1895 through the 1960s. Historian Fred Hearns says it was known as the Harlem of the South.

"If you were African American and you were looking for nice restaurants or you were looking for hotels, movie theater, barbershops, beauty shops, that was the place," Hearns stated.

Hearns is the curator of Black History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He says many entertainers and other famous people visited Central Avenue.

One of White’s fourth-graders listed some of them for FOX 13.

"They included Ella Fitzgerald, Ray and Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson also went there," said Hudson Garmon. He wrote a report on Perry Harvey, Sr, for whom a city park is named.

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"I like Perry Harvey a lot," Garmon added. "Because he helped dock worker’s rights and he increased pay salaries."

The park is filled with art and historical displays on Central Avenue. For the kids in White’s class, local black history couldn’t be more convenient.

"Central Avenue is two streets away from us," she explained. "So the students are very interested to know that Black history happened here in Tampa.

"In 1974, the last business, The Cotton Club, closed on Central Avenue," Hearns commented.

He says the business district was killed by the expansion of interstate highways, civil unrest in 1967, and ironically, desegregation. When Blacks were free to go to all the stores, restaurants, and theaters, it took business away from the Black-owned businesses.

"The students have learned that on Central Avenue, businesses were so prominent and so successful for black people there, but this is not an anomaly, it happened all over the United States," stated White.

But her students don’t have to go far to see where it happened in their city, just a couple of blocks away was Central Avenue.