EXPLORE THE HISTORY OF TAMPA
Florida has been a mecca of sunshine and opportunity for an array of cultures since the 16th century, when the first Spanish explorers landed on our shores. Tampa Bay has its own distinctive history of settlers whose influence is reflected in a modern populace that is rich in diversity and honors the past while remaining firmly rooted in the present.
The history of Tampa’s African-American populace is embodied in newly opened Perry Harvey, Sr. Park. Named for a local civil rights leader, the park is situated just north of downtown in the area once dubbed “The Scrub.” Ex-slaves settled there after earning their freedom and eventually created the bustling business Central Avenue district and Chitlin Circuit hub drawing musicians like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. Ray Charles got his start playing in clubs here. Originally developed in 1979 as a recreation spot for local youths, the park pays homage to the community’s African-American heritage with unique contextual artwork.
NATIVE AMERICAN ORIGINS
Though the indigenous natives of Florida were virtually gone by the 1700s and the migratory Seminole tribe that rose in their place has dwindled to the hundreds, you can gain insight into the area’s earliest cultures at the Tampa Bay History Center. Its permanent collection encompasses an exhibit of Tocobaga and Calusa artifacts—including a 2,000-year old canoe— while the immersive Coacoochee’s Story Theater documents the experiences of Seminole Chief Coacoochee during the Second Seminole War. The nearby Ulele restaurant serves innovative Native-inspired eats. The menu includes ingredients the area’s original inhabitants likely raised, caught, hunted or harvested from nearby land and waters.
photo by Amy Pezzicara
Spain laid claim to Florida early but Tampa’s Hispanic population skyrocketed in the 1880s after Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar-making operations to Tampa, drawing an influx of immigrants to work in the factories that sprung up in what is now Ybor City. Though it’s become a thriving nationally registered historic district that draws tourists and locals alike with restaurants, shops, businesses and a lively nightlife, you can see remnants of Ybor’s early community in the preserved casitas nestled around Ybor City Museum and Park. Its 1920s-era building (formerly the Ferlita Bakery) houses exhibits that chronicle the district’s history, industry and growth, as well as highlighting Cuban, Spanish, Italian and other ethnic groups that lived there and the societies and clubs that served them.
Built in 1914, the historic and majestic Centro Asturiano de Tampa was home to one of Ybor’s earliest Spanish social clubs. These days, Centro is put to use as an event facility with spaces such as the luxurious Grand Ballroom—with all 14 original mirrors still intact—and the regal 1,000-seat theater replete with balcony views and original stage rig and lights for occasions ranging from wedding receptions to quinceañeras, to concerts, plays, recitals and benefit galas.
And while the cigar industry in Ybor operates on a smaller scale today, you can still find several spots with authentic tastes, including award-winning Tabanero Cigars, where Cuban-style cigars are expertly rolled by hand.
Another must-stop for faithful Hispanic flavor: the fourth generation-owned Naviera Coffee Mills, which produces 14 unique blends and serves fresh cups (and freshly roasted beans and ground bags) from its aromatic El Molino Gourmet Coffee Shop. If you’re hungry, Ybor’s vast Hispanic food options will surely solve that. There’s the family-friendly El Puerto (Argentinian, El Salvadorian, Mexican), bread-and-pastry-centric La Segunda Central Bakery (Cuban) and, of course, for fine Spanish/Cuban dining, renown mainstay Columbia Restaurant. The district honors its Hispanic heritage in a big way with the seven-decades-old Fiesta Day, a blow-out that closes 7th Avenue to traffic and opens it up to strolling locals who enjoy a day of Latin music, arts and crafts, family-friendly fun and a vast array of food with a highlight in the creamy dessert competition, Flan Fest.
ASIAN AMERICAN IMPACT
Tampa’s Asian American population saw a noticeable surge in the 1970s. Today, 17 ethnic groups are represented and all converge at Asia Fest, a free family-friendly event at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park that’s been preserving and promoting Asian culture and heritage while showcasing the continent’s disparate sights, sounds and tastes since 1982.
Held concurrently, the younger (only 14 years rowing) Tampa Bay International Dragon Boat Races take the 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition of dragon boating— which promotes patriotism and group integrity—and transforms it into a modern-day water sport, where crafts outfitted with ornamental Chinese dragon heads and tails are powered by roughly 20 paddlers rowing in tandem to the beat of a loud drum as they race to the finish line. The Tampa edition draws teams from around the globe to compete over two days on Garrison Channel. Clearly, there’s no shortage of diversity in Tampa Bay. The only problem is figuring out just where to start.
The History Walk LIFETILES by Rufus Butler Seder bring past moments from the Scrub and Central Avenue to life using historic photographs hand-cast in optical tile murals, and James Simon’s giant (12-to-16-foot) sculptures of musicians, dancers and jukebox, a vibrant and whimsical nod to the area’s musical legacy. The contributions of Tampa’s African-American community are celebrated annually during Tampa Black Heritage Festival, a city-wide affair held in conjunction with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and spanning nearly two weeks with offerings that include live entertainment, sporting events, cultural festivities, speaking engagements and workshops, and a weekend music fest featuring big name R&B artists alongside locally grown talent.
While you're here, check out the Tampa Black Heritage Festival, a city-wide affair held in conjunction with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Discover our hospitality and find something different - treasure awaits you in Tampa Bay.