Last house standing

The 100-year-old Jackson House no longer hosts travelers, but it does offer up a slice of Tampa history

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click to enlarge CARETAKER: Willie Robinson is the owner of the Jackson House, a former 24-room boarding house built in 1901. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
CARETAKER: Willie Robinson is the owner of the Jackson House, a former 24-room boarding house built in 1901.

There are houses with stories and houses that tell stories. The Jackson House is one of the latter.

The two-story wooden house at 871 E. Zack St. in Tampa has stood in the same location for more than a century. The house saw the rise of the prominent African-American Central Avenue neighborhood. As one of the city's only boarding houses for African-Americans during segregation, it gave haven to great musicians and hundreds of less prominent travelers. It survived the demolition of the same neighborhood during Tampa's urban renewal in the 1970s. And most recently, the 24-room Jackson House has cautiously watched the area's most recent resurgence, as condos spring up in place of old buildings and vacant lots.

"How many houses can we point to that are 100 years old and the whole neighborhood around them is completely gone?" says Fred Hearns, Tampa's director of community affairs, who believes the Jackson House is the last free-standing residential dwelling in downtown Tampa. "It's a miracle for that house to survive the hazards it could have fallen prey to."

But to owner Willie Robinson Jr., it is the more personal stories that give the Jackson House significance. The stories of how one home gave his family hope and a future through four generations.

"Watch your step," cautions Robinson, a slim 58-year-old with a gleaming gold tooth. "Please excuse the house — it's old."

He opens the bright red door and leads me into the parlor, first room on the left. In preparation for my visit, he has unearthed photos dating back to the 1920s and spread them across a couch, computer desk and fireplace mantle. The parlor was the room where generations gathered for holidays and funerals — the ideal place in which to explain how his family history is irrevocably tied to this house.

While handing me yellowed Polaroids and black-and-white framed pictures, Robinson explains how his grandparents, Moses and Sarah Jackson, moved to Tampa in the late 1800s intent on building a house for their growing family. After constructing a six-room cottage by hand in 1901, Moses decided to add a second story and several rooms to create a boarding house. Robinson says his grandfather wanted the women of his family to run the boarding house "so they didn't have to work in the white man's kitchen."

Over the years, hundreds of African Americans — railroad workers, ship workers, military men and others — came through the house, some staying weeks at a time, for 25 cents a night. During segregation, it was the only place black travelers could lodge if they didn't have friends or family in town.

When Sarah Jackson died in 1937, the house was passed down to her eldest daughter. Eventually, Jackson's youngest daughter (and Willie Robinson's mother) Sarah took over the house with her husband Willie Robinson Sr.

It was 1944 — Central Avenue's heyday. Music blared from popular clubs like the Apollo. Black doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs lived in houses that lined the streets off the main drag. And the Jackson House was doing good business.

Willie Robinson Sr. opened a barbershop on Central Avenue and sent some of the musicians he groomed to the Jackson House. Over the next several years, Sarah Robinson hosted such greats as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald.

"This was considered to be a five-star rooming house," Robinson says, opening the door to the guest room where the bigger names stayed.

The room seems modest now, with purplish-grey walls, a drab single bed and small dresser. A single light bulb hangs by a cord from the ceiling.

Robinson says his mother had a piano in the parlor; she told him Ella Fitzgerald wrote "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" at that piano, tapping out the keys and writing in a notebook.

Robinson takes me down the hallway that runs the length of the house. It's dark, even with the midday sun filtering through the front and back doors. The walls are a faded lime green. The floors creak.

"The most amazing thing about living in history is this hallway," Robinson says. "Not because of the stars that stayed here, but I can visualize relatives that I didn't even know."

The rest of the house smells of old wood. The ancient linoleum in the kitchen is peeling. The dining room floor has buckled, due to a broken beam.

"We weren't millionaires," Robinson says, half-apologetically. "This house has a lot of history, but it needs a lot of work."

Robinson takes me up a flight of lopsided stairs to the second floor. All the rooms, except for one, are locked and in disrepair. This is where most boarders stayed, he says. The ones who were not stars.

"There were people that were my mentors," he recalls. "There was a man here, Mr. Smiley. Mr. Smiley was a very educated man. ... We used to sit on the porch and talk when I was a kid. He would always use words I wouldn't know, and he would teach me about them."

Robinson says his mother had few problems with boarders.

"You had to govern yourself accordingly," he says of the boarders. "This was a family house. You could not cuss. If you [drank] alcohol, you had to know how to handle it."

But in 1989, the Jackson House quit taking in people. Crack started infecting Tampa's neighborhoods, and Robinson says his mother couldn't trust people anymore.

They let only one boarder remain: Bob Washington, an elderly man who helped watch over the Jackson House when Robinson's mother left town. Washington still lives there.

"Because of that he has a place to stay for as long as he's alive," Robinson says.

Outside on the porch, Robinson relaxes on a bench and watches the cars head down Zack Street. An antique fire truck chugs down the road from Fire Station No. 1.

"If mom was here she'd make you lemonade," Robinson says. There's pain in his voice.

Sarah Robinson died last August at the age of 89. She had run the Jackson House for more than 60 years.

Before she died, Sarah Robinson, her cousin Johnnie Saunders (who also grew up in the house) and Willie Robinson approached City Council about making the Jackson House a Tampa historical landmark. Robinson says his mother wanted to protect the house against redevelopment and share a part of history with the rest of Tampa.

The house received the designation in 2004. Now Robinson is pushing for national recognition. If he gets it, the Jackson House may be eligible for thousands in grant money to renovate the house.

"I used to wonder why didn't my mother have a normal house," Robinson says. "She said so much of her was this house. I never understood it.

"I understand this now."

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