Gambling, Murder, Prostitution, and Blues All in Tampa
It all started with research into Tampa Red.
Tampa Red, born in Georgia, was sent to live with his grand parents in Tampa Florida as a young man. He eventually moved to Chicago, playing blues all along the way. This is public knowledge. However, no one ever mentions – or talks about – where in Tampa he lived.
Where did he play? What section of town? A simple mention of Tampa is never really enough, is it? After striving to find out addresses of his grand parents, where the “bustling” section of Tampa was that he may have played, and other unknown facts, what was uncovered was unreal.
Tampa, in the 1920’s and 1930s was actually a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit. But there was more. Murder, prostitution, gambling, blues, Jim Crow Laws, shootings, “all black” business districts, historical recordings, and more.
Tampa, as we all know, is shrouded in history. Often times the tale is told of Ybor City, and its historical relevance. Tourists even come from all over the country to see Ybor, take photos, and stroll down the streets. Local photographers rave about the location as a great place to shoot historical buildings, and more. However, no one seems to talk about the african-american history of Tampa. Very little is left now, but some people still remember. Climbing out of the shadows in what is now a rough neighborhood and a city park, the story of Tampa – and Central Ave – is a great one.
With Jim Crow laws ruling the town, the black population was forced to live in a small area of Tampa. That area has quite a bit of history. For one, where Scott Street and India Street are located was a hub of activity. Known in the 30’s as simply “The Scrub”, this was the poorest area. It was a ghetto, but also home to some thousand black people. They were shacks, and alleys, with renters and owners alike. This is the place I was able to track Tampa Red to – The Scrub. Turns out his grand parents lived in the district.
But more importantly, what came of this research, was Central Ave. On Central Ave, between Cass Street and Kay Street, was a booming African-American neighborhood and business district. This is where it all went down. If you were black in the 1930’s, this was the pace to spend Friday and Saturday nights – though Saturday night was the busy one.
From playing Bolita, a numbers game based out of Tampa, to blues, pool halls, prostitution, and more – this is where you would go to get your kicks. Along with Franklin Street, this is where Tampa Red followed around Piccolo Pete , a local street musician who eventually taught Tampa Red some guitar licks. This is where Eddie, Tampa Red’s older brother, would take young Tampa Red to see the nightlife, and hear the tunes.
On central Ave, you had many attractions, and many players. Of course you had theaters, like The Lincoln and Central Theater, that played movies late into the night. The Gem’s Drugstore, located once at 1308 Central Ave, played host to almost all of the african-american community at one time. And of course, there was the music.
There was The Cotton Club, owned by the Joyner family. This club was located on Central Ave, and was one of the first clubs to require a coat and tie. It was located right by the Pyramid Hotel (later named Rogers Hotel), which housed the famous Apollo Ballroom on its upper floor. There was Club Chiffon – a local establishment with live music. You also had Charlie Moon’s pool hall, which featured live music, as well as Johnny Gray’s bar. Another hot spot was The Blue Room, owned by Watt Sanderson. All of these places featured local musicians, and some national acts as well. It is said that many people including B.B. King, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Asa Harris, and others played up and down Central – it was the place to be.
To those that still remember, the history will never die. Tales are told of “Black Beauty”, the most sought after escort along Central. If there was a good time to be had, you can bet she was involved. Few people talk about Charlie Wall – or “The White Shadow”. Legend has it that during a strike by cigar makers, he spirited money to the strikers to keep their families fed. That earned Wall, who often sported white linen suits, the nickname. Wall ran the bolita games, along with the boot legging and prostitution. We played a large role in Central’s development and activities. He was eventually murdered by italian mob bosses years later, in his home, which is a murder that remains unsolved.
Another attraction of Central Ave and the surrounding area was Saunder’s Boarding House. Later named The Jackson House, this house was expanded to house traveling blacks who had no where else to stay. In Fact, Ella Fitzgerald wrote her hit “A Tisket, a Tasket” in the living room of this house. Dr. martin Luther King even roamed the hallways. In another story, Cab Calloway, after a performance at The Apollo Ballroom, fled to The Jackson House to escape the droves of women who were chasing him.
Of course, times have changed. The whole district was destroyed in the 50’s to put in place 275 and I-4, highways running through the city. The Scrub was torn down, and projects were built in its spot. Of course, now, the projects are gone, too, and a new project is under way on the land. The people of this area where dispersed, and relocated to surrounding areas. There is a park now – the Perry Harvey Park – where most of this rich history took place.
Some things are lost – such as Lemon Meringue Cake Pie that was unique to Central Ave – but many things are worth noting. No one from the area can forget The Greek Stand, a local eatery that was always opened, and always busy. I find it interesting that after hooking up with a local band, Ray Charles made his first recording on Central Avenue. Or that the popular dance “The Twist” was invented on Central. The original Cotton club is long gone – but a new one has been erected at 2502 North Albany Road in West Tampa. The Jackson House, originally built in 1901 near Union Station, now sits abandoned – but intact – at 851 E. Zack St. in Tampa. Charlie Wall’s house – where he was murdered – is still being lived in today, and sits at 1219 17th Ave in Ybor.
Turns out you don’t have to look very far – or hard- to discover the once thriving blues scene of Tampa.