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A conversation with Tampa City Council member Gwen Henderson about books, politics and education

A woman wearing a denim jacket and a cap covered in buttons smiles as she stands in front of a book shelf in a bookstore
Matthew Peddie
"I was reading an article a reprint of James Baldwin's article, 'If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?'" said Henderson. "And I said that is the name of my bookstore: Black English."

As Florida changed its Black history curriculum and removed books from public schools, first-time Tampa City Councilwoman Gwen Henderson pushed back and opened a bookstore.

Florida Matters visited Henderson at the bookstore she runs in Tampa Heights with her daughter Ariel. It’s called “Black English.”

The bookstore is bright, with high ceilings and walls decorated with colorful paintings.

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

"On the trans-Atlantic slave ships, we lost our language, we lost our ability to communicate," said Henderson.

"So our language is very, very diverse, and colorful, and this explains that. And these books here have been curated to explain Black talk, talking and testifying and the soul of how we speak.” 

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

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

“I was reading an article, a reprint of James Baldwin’s article, "If Black English isn’t a language, tell me what is" and it was written in 1977. And I said that is the name of my bookstore: Black English.” 

A bookshelf with sci-fi titles and a sign that reads 'melanated sci-fi'
Matthew Peddie
Henderson established Black English as an online store a few years before opening her brick and mortar bookstore in December 2023

Henderson 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, opened the doors to her brick-and-mortar storefront.

Listen to the interview or read highlights from the transcript below:

The motto of the bookstore is "free to read."

Absolutely. That stems from taking care of my mother for six years, she recently passed away. But I came across paperwork, and the paperwork was her birth certificate. And it just led me on this journey, and I discovered my great-great-grandfather, his name was Sam Hightower. It just broke my heart, just to be brief. He was born into bondage, he died free, in 1932. My mom was born in 1931, so I was able to tell her a story: "Mom, he lived in the house with you according to the U.S. Census, but the U.S. Census revealed that he was unable to read and write." And that is something as an educator, that just really 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. And there is just so much behind that tagline that I created as the part of the business plan, but at the same time, being the rebel that I am, in saying that books are liberated here, you are free to read whatever you want.

Do you think you would have opened this physical bookstore, even if there hadn't been that kind of climate that we've had around what books can and can't be read in schools?

Because of the plan. Yes, it was in the plan to open a bookstore and, you know, I'm at the end of my career as an educator, and so this is a great significant contribution to the community. You know, what happened when you walked in, you and your producer walked in, and you immediately just took to it, gravitated toward it with compliments. And that happens a lot. I knew that there was a need that I was meeting, and this was the right opportunity. And politically, it just happens to be the right climate and right time to do it.

"I knew that there was a need that I was meeting, and this was the right opportunity. And politically, it just happens to be the right climate and right time to do it."
Gwen Henderson

So you have people seeking you out?

People seek me out. I ask my customers, how did you hear about me? They say Instagram, but they also, oh yeah, come to indie bookshops, are very intentional. I have met people from Minnesota, Washington state, Oregon, Austin, Texas, Connecticut.

This particular aunt came in the store and she said yes, my nieces and nephews are behind me. Their parents are dropping them off and I'm going to buy them their book for Christmas. There were 17 kids that walked in here, and the three teenage girls were literally discussing, "Okay, well you get this, you get it and I'll read when you finish it. I'll read yours," because they could only get one book. And that was a very nice bill, you know, that I rang up that day. But watching the kids from ages four to 17 pick out books, it just brought me so much joy. It really did.

The district you represent, District Five, is a majority Black district. How much responsibility do you feel representing this district? And do you feel like you may get more scrutiny from your constituents than maybe other council members receive?

Okay, well, that's a good question. I'm a neophyte, you know, councilwoman, I'm the 16th. Councilwoman in the city of Tampa, number 16. And so my district is extremely diverse. East Tampa is a huge part of my district. But I also have, you know, downtown Tampa and Channelside. So I have a very diverse district, and I am the councilwoman, I just happen to be a Black woman. So who I represent is the entire district. And that does come with, not necessarily challenges, my focus is where I fall in the middle of that as an educated Black woman with three college degrees, who owns their own property and who had working class parents, a stay at home mom and dad who had a temporary education, who was the breadwinner until he passed away. So you know, I have these diverse experiences. That makes my point of view probably uncomfortable for some people. But at the end of the day, I'm going to make the best decisions possible for the community. And I will have done my homework, that's for sure.

"... I have these diverse experiences. That makes my point of view probably uncomfortable for some people. But at the end of the day, I'm going to make the best decisions possible for the community."
Gwen Henderson

Some of the challenges facing Tampa and the district that you represent, things that you campaigned on include affordable housing, jobs, development. What do you think the city needs to do to improve the lives of residents in those areas?

That is, oh, gosh, such a challenging question. Housing is a major struggle, because of the cost. And I feel so fortunate for myself as an educator, as single mom, I was able to buy a house 30 years ago, as a single mom and an educator, this is two things that people would consider strikes, correct? But yet housing was attainable for me 32 years ago. And that's not the case anymore. It's unnerving to know that a college graduate just can't walk out of college anymore, and stay with their mom for a little while, get their apartment, save their money and move into a house. That just doesn't exist anymore. How people have to go about, you know, saving for houses, they may have to go into a townhouse rather than a house. That is a big challenge.

It is not the city's responsibility solely to address the housing concerns, we get to contribute to it, we get to map out a plan to say, you know, yes, we want people to be able to live work and play in Tampa. And here's a plan to do that. But at the same time, it also depends on the economy.

What do you think you're going to focus on for your second year on the City Commission?

I'm tackling the budget. It's one of the things that I'm focused on, and how we go about addressing our social action funds. We are charitable as a city, but I think that there's some disparity there in terms of who gets those dollars, how long they get to get those dollars, why is the city supporting some organizations and not others. So taking a look at that is one of the things that I want to do, along with championing workforce housing.

Central Avenue, they called it The Scrub, that part of the community, it is being revitalized. There's some housing over there, there is a park named after Perry Harvey, the first Black City Council member. And so that is of very particular interest to me, to bring more arts and culture to that particular area. Central Avenue had a lot in common with what you see on Seventh Avenue today. In terms of businesses, it was the economic hub of the Black community. And so to bring that back, is a major reason why I want to stick around for a little while, because I would love to see some things highlighted and to bring some life and economic empowerment back to that area.

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.
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.