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A new Tampa Bay History Center exhibit chronicles 500 years of Black history in the Tampa Bay region

A new exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center tells over the last 500 years of Black history in the region. The permanent exhibit features 100 artifacts.

A new permanent exhibit now on display at the Tampa Bay History Center showcases 500 years of Black history in Tampa Bay.

Brad Massey is the Saunders Foundation Curator of Public History at the museum.

He says it took three years to bring the exhibit, "Travails and Triumphs," to life.

The end result is a collection of displays that brings together both the struggles and the accomplishments of the Black experience in the greater Tampa Bay region.

“We thought it was so important to tell that story here in our permanent galleries in a very upfront and explicit way,” Massey said.

The center brings more than 100 artifacts together in a partially enclosed space allowing visitors to walk through the area's history in five stops.

Tracing history from the start

The first explains the varied journeys of Africans across the Atlantic.

“This is a good example of a place where we want to tell a diverse story. Slavery was certainly part of this, most people were enslaved," Massey said. "But there were also free people from Africa that traveled as well."

Each stop covers about 100 years or so and includes an interactive display allowing visitors to dive deeper into the history.

One of the oldest pieces in the exhibit is an 1838 map of Fort Brooke, where military officials coordinated the Seminole Wars.

"Travails and Triumphs" isew permanent exhibit now on display at the Tampa Bay History Center showcases 500 years of Black history in Tampa Bay
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
A map from 1838 is the oldest artifact in the collection at "Travails and Triumphs." It is the new permanent exhibit now on display at the Tampa Bay History Center showcasing 500 years of Black history in Tampa Bay.

“We tell the story about how the Seminole Wars wasn't just a war of removal of American Florida Indians," Massey said. "It was also a story of removing Black Floridians that lived in maroon communities and in some cases, re-enslaving them.”

Maroon communities refers to the groups of people who escaped enslavement in Georgia and the Carolinas and created communities in Florida.

The Tampa Bay History Center is built partially where Fort Brooke once stood.

“The one thing we didn't want to do is flatten the Black experience and say, 'Well, everyone had this experience.' It was a very diverse experience," Massey said.

"There were absolutely hardships and prejudice and there was Jim Crow. But there's also triumph in (the) stories.”

A tribute to forgotten cemeteries

A scroll from the 1870s lists some of the first Black property owners in Tampa.

Another stop includes the recently rediscovered lost Black burial site, Tampa's Zion Cemetery.

Hundreds of graves are believed to remain on the 2½ acres where the cemetery once was — property where a Tampa Housing Authority complex and commercial structures were built over them.

A large sign hangs in the exhibition, bearing the names of some of those buried there.

 Names from some of those buried in Tampa
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Names of some of those buried in Tampa's Zion Cemetery is on display at the Tampa Bay History Center in their new permanent exhibit, "Travails and Triumphs."

“For Zion, it was important for us to tell some of the stories of the people that were buried there. And so what we did was we looked up some of the death certificates, and some of these people were not well known.”

But some were. Rosa Spotford was buried in Zion in 1916. Today, the CDC of Tampa Audrey L. Spotford Youth and Family Center is named in honor of her family.

The exhibit concludes with signs from the Bay area protests of 2020 that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, including one sign that reads “Racism is Whack.”

Massey said there has been a recent movement, particularly by The Legacy Museum in Birmingham, AL, to remember people who were victims of lynching. The museum collects soil where someone was lynched and puts it on display.

City officials and the Legacy Museum traveled to a spot in Tampa where a man named Robert Johnson was lynched in 1934 and collected two jars of soil. The History Center displays one jar of soil with his name, and the Birmingham museum holds the other.

This Juneteenth — Monday, June 19 — the Tampa Bay History Center will offer free admission to all visitors.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.