Fred Hearns readies one of Tampa Bay's most ambitious Black history month celebrations

It kicks off when Ben Crump keynotes a reception called 'Embracing Our Cultural Kaleidoscope.'

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click to enlarge Fred Hearns. - cityoftampa/Twitter
Fred Hearns.
When Fred Hearns was announced as curator of Black History at the Tampa Bay History Center last year, he further cemented his stature as an authority on innovative ways of telling Tampa's little-known Black history.

"I was thrilled that I got to have some input into how the history of Black people in Tampa should be reflected and honored," Hearns wrote in the press release. "Along with several other trustees, I got to sign my name on a beam as the new facility was topped out. So I'm literally a part of this story."
Hearns told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay people are always reaching out to him several times a week to do a tour or speak at different events, including family reunions, and share his vast knowledge of the local Black history. Hearns says the beautiful thing about history is it doesn't change. Because his specialty is local Black history, any facts, dates, locations, and occurrences don't change so it's easy for him to find information.

"We add to it each day but we can't go back and change history," he said.

Planning for this year's Black History Month festivities began almost a year ago when a committee made of a small group of Tampa Bay History Center staff, together with community members, were put in charge of curating events that celebrate the Black history of Tampa Bay.

"All of these things are brand new. None of these have been done in Tampa," said Hearns.
This year's Black History Month festivities starts Feb. 4 with an inaugural reception titled "Embracing Our Cultural Kaleidoscope" featuring attorney, speaker, and author Ben Crump and civil rights activist and organizer Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr. A deserving recipient from the Tampa Bay-area will receive the first newly-created "Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr. Award for the Preservation of Black History and Heritage" the night of the reception. A Hillsborough County middle school will also receive a cash award for their Thurgood Marshall History Club to ensure the club gets ample opportunity to continue learning more Black history.

Tampa Bay History Center's Black History Month calendar is pretty diverse with various walks plus in-person and virtual events. A new "Central Avenue West" walking tour commences Feb. 6 at 3 p.m. with Hearns as tour guide. He'll take a small group of people on a walk in the area west of Central Avenue with stops at Oaklawn Cemetery, the "centerpiece of the walking tour" according to Hearns, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Kid Mason Community Center.

"We thought it was important to have it because there's still a lot of history we don't get to in Perry Harvey, Sr. Park," said Hearns, referencing the downtown park dedicated in 2016 when he was the City of Tampa's Department of Community Affairs director. "Just going a couple of blocks west, you could easily spend another two to three hours in that area."

In recent years, Tampa has made progress in preserving its own Black history. In the wake of reporting from Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay lawmakers in Tallahassee filed bills correcting the "historic wrongs" done to local, forgotten Black cemeteries. Senator Janet Cruz says the two bills, Senate Bill 1588 and House Bill 1215, offer solutions on how to "identify, protect, and maintain abandoned cemeteries in Florida, particularly African American ones."

"Our bills want to memorialize the abandoned African American cemeteries, as well as educate people on the history of these important resting places and Senate Bill 1588 and House Bill 1215 will create a historic cemeteries program and an associated advisory council within the Division of Historical Resources at the Florida Department of State, which will coordinate the state's efforts around the historic cemeteries," Cruz told WFLA.

Hearns tells CL that Tampa isn't where it needs to be when it comes to telling the Black history of its residents but what needs to be done is occurring currently, which is planning.

"We're not where we need to be but at least I see plans being made to turn older venues like the Jackson House into a museum in a few years," he said, alluding to the dilapidated boarding house that's hosted Black icons like Ray Charles, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and James Brown.

Hearns also said that Hillsborough County is putting funding into a new African-American museum. The Tampa Housing Authority wants to turn the St. James Episcopal Church into a small Black history museum.

"Those three projects will help us be where we need to be because Tampa has never had a legitimate Black history museum," Hearns said.

Hearns added that the Tampa Bay History Center is involved in the behind the scenes activities of the Jackson House, which includes planning the work that starts this year with saving portions of the house and infusing those parts with a new rendering of the house. The history center will also run the daily operations of the Jackson House once the project is complete.

"Hopefully by this year's hurricane season, the work would've started and we'll see this unfold before our eyes," he said.

The reason parts of Tampa's Black history get erased, Hearns said, is because the elders were more interested in moving forward and less interested in reliving their personal trauma. Most of their lives were rooted in pain, so they chose to suppress those memories and attempt to forget them. The issue with that is a lot of oral histories went away when the elders died; there wasn't a lot of interest in trying to preserve the history either. Hearns tells a story about his mother living at the since demolished North Boulevard Homes when they first opened and not knowing she grew up there until he was older when his uncle told him. She didn't ever tell him anything about her experience in that area.

"Some elders suppressed as much as they could but you have some families who shared and passed on their legacies," said Hearns. "We didn't have a lot of people who went into the profession of preserving history either."

There will be other events throughout the year devoted to Tampa's Black history, so don't fret if you're not able to make any next month. Hearns tells CL the next major event he's working on after next month is a Florida Emancipation Day Celebration at Tampa Bay History Center's Chinsegut Hill property, located 5 miles north of Brooksville in Hernando County.

At the time of this story, tickets for the Feb. 4 reception are sold-out. The remainder of events are free or free with museum admission.
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