TAMPA — Central Avenue was once the hippest place in Tampa.
It’s where Ray Charles made his first recording and where Hank Ballard discovered “The Twist,” the dance that inspired his song popularized by Chubby Checker.
Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald also regularly performed there.
But nothing remains of Central Avenue today.
“So much of the hardscape of the African American community has been wiped out,” said Robin Nigh, the city’s manager of Arts & Cultural Affairs.
So, in February, her department oversaw the launch of Tampa Soulwalk, a 46-mile, 25-neighborhood journey with around 100 stops that include historic buildings, historic markers detailing long-gone structures or significant sites, and public art, all of which tell the stories of the pioneering days of Tampa’s Black community, the local Civil Rights movement and contributions Black men and women made to the city.
A map of the tour with destination descriptions is available at tampa.gov/soulwalk and through the Bloomberg Connects app.
Nigh said it’s a great way for residents to spend Juneteenth.
The enslaved were emancipated in Tampa on May 6, 1864, throughout Florida a year later, and then officially throughout the country on June 19, 1865, a day now celebrated as Juneteenth.
Free Black men and women then founded their own communities in Tampa. There was the Scrub and the Garrison in downtown, Dobyville in Hyde Park, Robles Pond a short distance from Tampa Heights, and College Hill in East Tampa. Little of those historic neighborhoods still exists, steamrolled for new developments.
But each is now memorialized through the Tampa Soulwalk.
“What this does is bring it back to life and excavate it,” Nigh said.
One example is Central Avenue. Tampa’s downtown Black business district was considered the Harlem of the South due to welcoming the nation’s top Black performers. It was developed in the 1890s and razed in the 1970s.
A downtown historic marker and mural now pay tribute to “the former businesspeople who made Central Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood a viable place to live, work, and provide essential goods and services,” according to the website.
Downtown has more still-existing historic sites on the tour than any other stop. Those include:
• Oaklawn Cemetery, where an unknown number of enslaved people were buried in unmarked graves. Today, symbolic headstones mark that section.
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• The original building for St. Paul AME Church, which was established in 1870 and later became a hub of the local Civil Rights movement. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Justice Thurgood Marshall are among those who spoke there. Today, the building is a community center and library for the Metro 510 residential community.
• Founded in 1891, St. James Episcopal Church was considered the heart of the Scrub, which was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. Today, it is a community center for the Tampa Housing Authority’s Encore neighborhood.
In Dobyville, tourists can see the home where the Black suburb’s founder, Richard Doby, lived, but they cannot go inside. Someone lives there.
Tampa Heights stops include two statues. One is of Blanche Armwood, Hillsborough County’s first superintendent of Black schools, and the other is of Clara Frye, who started Tampa Negro Hospital in her three-room home.
East Tampa, the tour’s northernmost point, has 20 stops. Those include:
• Rogers Park Golf Course, which opened in 1952 as Tampa’s first for Black players.
• The Florida Sentinel Bulletin, which has been the Black community’s newspaper since 1945.
• The Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot, which is believed to be home to the erased College Hill Cemetery, which was established in 1889 for Black and Cuban burials. Robert Meacham, a formerly enslaved man who became a state senator, was among those buried there.
The tour goes as far south as Port Tampa. Established in the 1890s as a separate city, Black residents moved there for the jobs at the port, but those dried up once Port Tampa Bay opened to the east in the 1920s.
The city wants to add audio to the tour, with scholars recording history lessons for each stop, Nigh said. It could also one day become a bus tour.
The city is planning to add more historic markers, including one for East Tampa’s Montana City Subdivision, established in 1907 by Thomas H.B. Walker. He was nationally known at the time for his St. Joseph Aid Society, which offered financial and burial assistance, life insurance and college scholarships to members.
Another marker would denote 813 Short Emery St., where Ray Charles stayed in Tampa while he made his first record.
And the city is always open to suggestions for new stops — anyone can make suggestions through the tour’s website.
“We will add as many as needed,” Nigh said. “The whole point of this is to tell a full story.”