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Politics is just one place where two Black Tampa leaders are making a mark

Black English Bookstore
Gracyn Doctor
Gwen Henderson opened Black English Bookstore in December 2023 as a response to book ban laws.

This week, we are talking with two Black women who are leaders in the community and who have each taken a different approach to politics.

Former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner was the first Black woman to serve as Senate minority leader in the Florida Legislature. She was elected in 1999 with her term beginning in 2000, amid the turmoil of the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case.

Joyner’s interest in fighting for the people began in fifth grade, after Brown v. Board ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Although she grew up seeing Black photographers, doctors and journalists, she was inspired by the head attorney for the plaintiffs.

“That’s when I decided, heck, I want to be like Thurgood Marshall. I want to be a lawyer,” Joyner said, “so I can fight for equality for Black people, specifically, and all others who may be marginalized.”

Senator Arthenia Joyner has led a full life of fighting for the rights of Black people.
Matthew Peddie
Sen. Arthenia Joyner has led a full life of fighting for the rights of Black people.

As a teen, Joyner worked as a social editor for both the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, Tampa’s second Black newspaper, and WTMP Radio. But growing up seeing the Ku Klux Klan marching outside her bedroom window, along with witnessing the treatment of Black people in the 1950s, she knew her calling was to be a lawyer for people who looked like her.

In 1960, when Joyner was in 11th grade, her fight would begin. She was one of 40 students from Middleton and Blake High Schools to sit at the F.W. Woolworth Department Store lunch counter, refusing to leave, to fight for integration and equal treatment. Three years later, Joyner would be arrested, twice, spending 14 days in the Leon County Jail for participating in demonstrations at her alma mater, Florida A&M University.

“May 30 and Sept. 13, 1963,” Joyner recalled. “First time, we were released and charges were dropped. “Second time, nope! We were second offenders then.”

Joyner would use her experience as the fuel for her 16-year career. She would go on to serve as the first Black lawyer in Tampa, local campaign leader for Shirley Chisolm, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and President Bill Clinton, Senate House minority leader, and the first Black Hillsborough County Aviation Authority member.

Coincidentally, we spoke to Joyner’s mentee, first-time City Councilwoman and Black English Bookstore owner Gwen Henderson.

Gracyn Doctor
The "Spine Wall" at the Black English Bookstore.

“I came up with the idea of a bookstore only because you have to solve a problem or meet a need,” Henderson tells host Matthew Peddie after his journey though a bright bookstore with high ceilings, and walls decorated with colorful paintings.

The store is serene.

Bookshelves are dedicated to everything from poetry to business, the history of hip-hop and Black vernacular.

A Marvin Gaye record sits on a turntable. James Baldwin looks down from a framed print.

Henderson, who wears a ball cap covered in buttons – Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Florida A&M University and others – says her mission is to elevate books by Black authors, especially graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

Henderson is a long-time educator. She came up with the idea for the bookstore a couple of years ago, while teaching an entrepreneurship course at Hillsborough County Public Schools.

She created a business plan, started an online store, and in December 2023, opened the doors to her brick-and-mortar storefront.

But Henderson says along with meeting a need, the goal of her bookstore is to push back against local book ban laws.

“When you’re being told that certain books are not appropriate for children to read, I know there’s a lot wrong with that,” Henderson said. “Opening a bookstore gives me the freedom to provide books that are actually liberated. As a Black woman, I have no reason to use the word ‘banned.’ Books are emancipated. They’re free.”

The bookstore’s tagline – "free to read" is a nod to Henderson’s great-great-grandfather, Sam Hightower. Henderson says he was born into bondage and died free in 1932.

“The U.S. Census revealed that he was unable to read and write,” she said. “And that is something as an educator, that just really, it just kind of shook me to my core, it kept me up at night. And we are free to read as a society now – we're free to read.”

Listen to this week’s episode to hear more from Joyner and Henderson. You can hear longer versions of these interviews on the Florida Matters podcast, available on podcast platforms.

As the executive producer of WUSF's Florida Matters, I aim to create a show and podcast that makes all Floridians feel seen and heard. That's also my assignment as a producer for The Florida Roundup. In any role, my goal is always to amplify the voices often overlooked.
I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.