The Scrub: A History of The African American Neighborhood in Tampa
The Scrub: So what is it? Well, in the early 1900’s, it was everything. It was home to many African Americans in the Tampa Florida Area. Tampa Red’s grandparents lived in The Scrub. Ray Charles was there. Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Martin Luther King Jr. are rumored to have visited The Scrub when they came to Central Avenue, which was not only a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, but also the central hub of the African American community in Tampa in the 1900’s. For more information on Central Ave and Tampa Blues History in general, check out this article. Ray Charles stayed for a while at 813 Short Emory Street, just west of The Scrub by a block. Tampa Red’s family, with whom he lived and played, was at 813 Nebraska Ave, on the eastern side of The Scrub.
Freed slaves founded the Scrub in the late 1800’s. Early white settlers of the Tampa area had settled in the Fort Brooke area, and assigned the “less protected” area amongst the oaks and scrubs to the African Americans. This 39 acre area was known as The Scrub almost immediately, as it was overrun by the Florida shrubs, commonly referred to as scrubs, or scrub brush. Cuban, West Indie refugees, and contraband slaves soon moved into the area. Many came for the fishing and shipping industry, and many if the inhabitants ended up working for cigar factories, or as laborers. Interestingly, the language spoken in The Scrub was one all its own. The language was jargon – a mixture of English, Spanish, and Cuban spiced with ancestral dialects and interpretations.
Fast forward to 1915 through the 20’s. The Scrub, at this time home to approximately 21,000 African Americans, pretty much bordered Central Avenue, the “main drag” for African Americans of the time. The Scrub at this time resembled more of a ghetto. Most of the homes were in very poor condition, and were small, simple wood frame structures. This “city within a city” lacked basic services. Most of the homes didn’t have plumbing. The residents burned their trash because there was no garbage collection. Back yards were small or non-existent. One newspaper went so far as to say The Scrub was a location where the allure and lascivious behavior (i.e. sexual promiscuity and alcohol consumption) became irresistible even to a “negro with exemplary character.” Another newspaper labeled part of the area “3 acres of Hell”. Never-the-less, to the majority of African Americans living in Tampa, this was home.
It is also important to remember that at this time, the African American population in this area was self-sufficient. They had everything they needed. They had shops, stores, clubs, restaurants, and more on Central Avenue. They had homes, community leaders, and hotels. Though The Scrub was a “rough” neighborhood as seen by outsiders, it was home. Evidence of this still exists in the area that was once The Scrub. In 1891, after residents of The Scrub were not allowed to attend White Churches, they built their own – the St. James Episcopal Church. It was built with $100 of building supplies the residents had saved up. Soon it had a school, and a repository. The church would later move to a brick building on an adjacent lot. Tampa Red’s grandparents were members of the congregation. His aunt was the organist for the church. That church still stands today. The complete history of the church will be covered in a later article.
Of course, The Scrub had its rough spots too. One area, close by and off of Central Avenue known as Muggie Alley (sometimes falsely called Maggie’s Alley) was one of the lost dangerous areas in all of Tampa. There was also the area known as “The Tenderloin”, a small area near The Scrub where “maidens of dusky hue are to be found.” Then, there was also 44 Quarters. On roughly the edge of The Scrub, located in the eastern section, this was a bad area. In the Raper Report, a study done of the African American life in Tampa in 1927, 44 Quarters was declared “the most dangerous property in Tampa.” Raper and partner Moays ran a string around the 44 houses in this little enclave. “The string would run around the Tampa Hotel about 1 and 1/3 times.” The 44 homes had 3 foot back yards. The renters paid 3 dollars a week. Eventually, the Health Department would condemn the whole neighborhood. In 1949, the Urban League said these areas were among the worst in the nation.
Actually, the first ever Tampa Police Officer was killed in The Scrub.
In fact, The Scrub is of such a historical significance that USF did several archeological digs on the land that was once The Scrub, and the area that was once 44 Quarters. Their findings were pretty interesting. Though in the 44 Quarters dig they were looking for evidence of Buffalo Soldiers, on both sites many items were found from the prosperous times of these African American communities. Most of the items found were “reflecting of the residential development of the block that followed on the heels of the Buffalo Soldiers”. Among the items found were a porcelain doll’s ear, a marble, a jack, hairpins, plastic beads, a comb, perfume bottles, coins, large amounts of broken dishes, glass bottles, utensils, iron skillets, pots, and more.
As the area grew continuously worse, it was eventually torn down for “urban renewal.” Residents of The Scrub were displaced to Progress Village, built in 1958 to house residents who were forced to move. Only a quarter of the promised residences were built. It is important to note, however, that the Progress Village had an interracial Board of Trustees. Later, projects were built on the land that was once The Scrub. Now – in 2011- urban renewal is at it again – this time, for the better.
A new project named Encore is under way. This project will sit on the exact spot that was once The Scrub. The project is beautiful. It features mixed income housing, a historical museum of the area to be housed in the St. James Church mentioned above, as well as shops, a grocery, hotels, condos, a park, a middle school, a community center, a town green, an amphitheater and performance stage, a history walk, and much more. For details, check out http://www.encoretampa.com.
Hopefully, this project will help renew the area, preserve its history, and strengthen the sense of community. It is definitely a step in the right direction.
Hopefully The Scrub is never forgotten.
Check out The Gallery.