From Armwood High to Fortune Street, meet Black Floridians behind local landmarks

Gabrielle Calise, Tampa Bay Times
·8 min read

Local Black history stories can be found throughout Tampa Bay, from the roads and bridges we drive on to the area’s libraries, parks and schools. The following places are named for the Black Floridians who fought to improve conditions in their communities, inspire others and create lasting change.

Take a trip back through time and learn about the notable people behind these names.

C. Blythe Andrews Jr. Public Library

Cyril Blythe Andrews Jr. (1901-1977) worked in each department at his family’s African American newspaper, the Florida Sentinel, before becoming the owner and publisher. In 1959, he merged the paper with the Tampa Bulletin and the Florida Sentinel Bulletin was born.

Andrews was also a civil leader and philanthropist, serving on numerous boards including the Florida State Advisory Committee on Civil Rights, the Negro Advisory Committee, the Tampa Sports Authority, Florida Arts Council and the Hillsborough County Hospital Authority. He made history as the first Black man appointed to the Hillsborough County Civil Service Board in 1966 and the first Black man on the Tampa Sports Authority in 1975.

The former College Hill Public Library in Tampa was renamed after Andrews in 2010. The building at 2607 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. houses a Florida Sentinel Bulletin collection in its archive. Andrews’ likeness and story are documented on the Historical Monument Trail along Tampa’s Riverwalk.

Armwood High School

Blanche Armwood (1890-1939) was an educator and advocate who fit many accomplishments into her 49 years. According to thetampariverwalk.com, Armwood graduated from college at 16 and began teaching that same year. She became the principal of Ybor City’s College Hill Primary School by 18. A pioneer in home economics curriculum, Armwood was appointed to be supervisor of Negro schools by the Hillsborough County School Board in 1922.

Armwood spent eight years on the board, working to boost the salaries of Black teachers, extend the school year for Black students from six months to nine and secure new buildings for schools. She also helped with the opening of the first accredited Black high school in America, Tampa’s Booker T. Washington High.

Armwood went on to help found the city’s Urban League, serving as its first executive secretary, and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She enrolled in law school at Howard University at age 44, graduating with her degree in four years. According to Tampa Bay Times archives, historians believe that she would have been the first Black woman admitted to the Florida Bar Association had she not died suddenly at age 49 from pneumonia. Armwood High School in Seffner is named after her.

Bessie Coleman Boulevard

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was one of 13 children born to a Black mother and Cherokee father in Atlanta, Texas. According to a biography of Coleman on Tampa International Airport’s website, flight schools in America rejected her applications because of her race and sex. So, she went to Europe to train in acrobatic stunt flying.

Coleman returned to the United States to amaze audiences with her skills. Fans called her “Brave Bess” and “Queen Bess.” According to Times archives, she never appeared at events that barred Black people.

Coleman died during an air show warmup at age 34 in Jacksonville before achieving her goal of opening a flying school for African Americans. A petition by the National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees prompted the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority to rename a service road at Tampa International Airport after Bessie Coleman in 2000.

Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center

Johnnie Ruth Clarke (1919-1978) made history as the first Black woman to earn a doctorate from a public university in Florida when she graduated from the University of Florida’s college of education in 1966.

Education was important to Clarke, who taught at Florida A&M University (where she earned her bachelor’s degree) and Bethune-Cookman College. She served as the dean of Gibbs Junior College (now Gibbs High) and as assistant dean of academic affairs at St. Petersburg Junior College, where she created the Total Opportunity Program to help students enroll in college, jobs or vocational-technical training.

In the early 1/4 u203270s, Clarke went on to become the assistant director of the Florida Regional Medical Program. She worked on programs to help the impoverished fight sickle cell anemia and other diseases. Today, her legacy is remembered at St. Petersburg’s Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, which has a long history of providing affordable health care for Black residents.

George E. Edgecomb Courthouse

George E. Edgecomb (1942-1976) was raised by a single mother in West Tampa. He served as student body president at both Middleton High School and Clark College before graduating from Howard University with a law degree, according to hillsboroughcounty.org. Edgecomb went on to become the county’s first Black prosecutor, making history again as Hillsborough’s first Black county judge when he was appointed by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1973.

According to the county’s website, Edgecomb also served as a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa and president of the Greater Tampa Urban League Board of Directors. He died of leukemia at age 33. The courthouse at 800 E Twiggs St. became downtown Tampa’s first building named after a Black person when it was dedicated in 2004.

Fortune Street and Madame Fortune Taylor Bridge

A community leader known to her neighbors as Madame Fortune Taylor (1825-1906), this former slave came to Hillsborough County with her husband Benjamin following the Civil War. According to a bio on hillsboroughcounty.org, she ran a successful baked goods business, grew fruit with her husband and owned 33 acres of land on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River.

West Tampa founder Hugh McFarlane approached Taylor asking to build a bridge using her land, hoping to connect the cigar factories on his side of the river to Tampa’s downtown on the east side. According to Times archives, the 1892 bridge “not only was a key link to West Tampa’s cigar factories, but has been seen as a symbolic connection between white and Hispanic residents in West Tampa and Black residents to the east.”

Part of the agreement included the bridge bearing her name, while neighbors arranged for the city to name Fortune Street after her, too. Then downtown roads were realigned in 1967 amidst the construction of Interstate 275. When Laurel Street was extended to allow for an exit ramp, the city renamed Taylor Bridge to the Laurel Street Bridge. In October 2017, the Tampa City Council restored Taylor’s name — and her lost legacy — to the span.

Gibbs High School

When Jonathan C. Gibbs (1827-1874) was named secretary of state in 1868, he became the first Black person appointed to a Florida Cabinet post.

The Philadelphia native started his career as a carpenter, then a Presbyterian minister. He opened a school for freed slaves in North Carolina after the Civil War, then moved to Florida to continue this work. He grabbed the attention of Gov. Harrison Reed during Florida’s 1868 constitutional convention and became secretary of state. Gibbs also became the state’s acting governor as Reed faced impeachment twice and, later, state superintendent of public instruction.

Gibbs had a strong impact on Florida’s school system. He worked to reform education, create schools for Black students, adopt standard textbooks and triple enrollment in state schools. Gibbs High School, St. Petersburg’s first high school for Black students, bears his name.

Perry Harvey Sr. Park

As a founding member and longtime president of the local longshoremen’s union, Perry Harvey Sr., who died in 1972, helped to improve working conditions, wages and benefits for many Black dockworkers in Tampa. He also worked with C. Blythe Andrews to create better living options by developing Tampa’s first Black-owned apartment building and plaza.

His work on Florida’s biracial committee helped to desegregate the Hillsborough County school system. Harvey also had the vision for Head Start, a national program that helps low-income students get ready to begin school.

The park named for him is located at the site of the former Central Avenue business district of the Scrub, Tampa’s largest Black neighborhood. It includes a large bronze sculpture of Harvey, plus murals and photos that tell Black history stories. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the park a “living, breathing history lesson.”

Robert W. Saunders Library

After a childhood spent attending Black schools in West Tampa without indoor plumbing, Robert W. Saunders Sr. (1921-2003) dedicated his life to bringing equality and safety to Black Floridians.

In the mid-1900s, Saunders became the Florida field director of the NAACP. He worked hard during the 1/4 u203250s and 1/4 u203260s to increase pay for Black teachers, integrate schools and usher in public housing and beaches. An influential civil rights activist, Saunders worked at the U.S. Office of Equal Opportunity and later directed the Office of Equal Opportunity for the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, according to the Hillsborough Public Library Cooperative. Saunders was also one of the local leaders who helped bring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Tampa in 1961.

A bronze bust with his likeness can be found in the library named after him at 1505 N Nebraska Ave. in Tampa.

Information from Tampa Bay Times archives was used in this report.

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