The Jackson Rooming House (pictured here in 2023) shows a significant amount of deterioration. Attempts to restore the property are hindered by lack of funding and recently by conflicts with the property’s neighbor, 717 Parking.
Less than a mile away from the Morsani College of Medicine’s front doors, you can find the last house remaining in downtown Tampa. It is a two-story house built in the early 1900s, with shattered windows and a crumbling façade. The porch awning is partially collapsed, signs warn of the house’s structural instability, and an aluminum fence surrounds the property. The decaying Jackson Rooming House was once a bustling establishment, now the fear is that it will not survive hurricane season.
The Jackson Rooming House was a family run business that served African American travelers when other establishments would not. The house is a symbol of a deeply divided America, one in which African Americans were unable to dine in the same restaurants, visit the same shops, or sleep in the same hotels as their white counterparts. In its heyday, the house served as a safe refuge for musicians such as Ray Charles and civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. Since 2007 the house has been officially listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, a recognition that has helped prevent the building from demolition in a period of redevelopment of downtown Tampa.
In many senses, the Jackson House is no different than other establishments that served minorities during the era of segregation. During the 1920s through the 1960s, it was just another business integrated into the social fabric of Tampa. It was only because of the efforts of Willie Robinson Jr., who was born and raised in the Jackson House, that the house remained standing for decades. When Mr. Robinson Jr. passed away in 2019, restoration efforts were taken over by The Jackson House Foundation. To turn the structure into a museum, the foundation estimates it needs $5.5 million. It is unlikely the funds will be collected before the house’s eventual collapse and now 717 Parking, the house’s neighbors, have declined to give up some of their parking spaces around the building. This refusal prevents stabilization of the house’s outer walls and puts the house in an ever so precarious condition this hurricane season.
It is easy to view the preservation efforts of the Jackson House as an individual failure, an individual failure of the Tampa city mayor or The Jackson House Foundation to rally the community behind fundraising efforts. This view, as tempting as it is, does not adequately recognize the true barriers to restoration efforts. The true barrier is a societal one: we tend to willfully forget the past. For decades, thousands of people went to work only blocks from the house, and thousands of others parked near the house to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning play. People knew about the house’s significance, and yet almost nobody felt it was worth saving.
The Jim Crow era is one we would rather forget, an era that reveals the prejudice of white neighborhoods. This prejudice was once etched into the laws written and passed by our state legislature. This version of history continues to be rewritten, as more history books are rejected by the people we vote into public office. The Jackson House will continue to deteriorate unless society finds a way to reckon with the past.
Today, preservation efforts acknowledge that the house will likely never be saved. Extensive repairs will likely remove its historical landmark status and thus federal funding. Instead of rebuilding the house, new focus has been placed on building a replica with parts from the original house. Whether these plans will ever be realized remains a mystery, yet I remain hopeful. I hope that one day, I can take my children to the Jackson House Museum. I hope we can walk through the front door and tour a piece of history. I hope I can tell them about an era that we outgrew as a society. I suppose only time will tell, though…
Until then, people can still make donations to save this historic landmark. If you are interested in donating to the Jackson House Foundation, you can donate at https://www.jacksonhousefoundation.org/