Off the beaten path: An insider’s guide to Tampa history for #OHA2015

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By Jessica Taylor

There are less than two months left before we converge on Tampa for the Oral History Association’s annual meeting! This week, we asked Jessica Taylor of the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, who authored “We’re on Fire: Oral History and the Preservation, Commemoration, and Rebirth of Mississippi’s Civil Rights Sites” in the most recent Oral History Review, to give us the inside scoop on some local stories of interest to oral historians. Check it out below, and make sure to book your tickets while they’re still available.

“You, the favored inhabitants of the Sun God’s Golden Land—of the pearl-made beaches, conversing palms, persuasive breezes, of little giggling waves which, surprising you on the seashore seeking amusement, steal up and deposit gifts of tinted shells and pebbles at your feet, then dance away to gather more for you; you for whom the more than stately pleasure domes that far surpass the most extravagant dreams of Kubla Khan in Xanadu have been built—how aware are you of the subterranean force which flows beneath your fabulous mansions?”

—Zora Neale Hurston, “Florida’s Migrant Farm Labor

Unless we all boarded a plane for Sandals™, it’d be hard to plan a conference in an environment more expertly engineered for relaxation than Florida in the winter. A hundred million tourists agree; they’d like to spend their vacation time and cash (around $82 billion in 2014) on the coast, in restaurants with marvelous food. They’d like to drive very, very slowly down shady streets framed by Victorians houses and live oaks and Spanish moss. They’d like to take a long series of pictures in a new and exciting place. They’d like to escape.

Florida historians, including the ones with recorders, insist time and again that escape isn’t possible. Florida is a political and social reflection of both the South and the nation as a whole, and the movement of people and changes in landscapes represent, as Steve Noll writes in Ditch of Dreams, “visions of progress, economic growth, and preservation.” Online news sources might highlight Florida’s bizarre or terrifying daily occurrences, but visitors continue to pour into the Sunshine State in record-breaking numbers even after news of Trayvon Martin’s death, Jeb Bush’s run, manatee insanity, and the struggle for migrant farm worker rights reverberated beyond.

Florida is still unique, though, for the same reason that the field of oral history is special. Florida’s beaches are still beautiful, and its people still diverse, because historians, environmentalists, and working people struggled over the past century to preserve their communities. That’s why you’ll like it so much. Here’s what to look forward to:

“Canoeing on the Hillsboro (sic), Tampa, Fla. The Cigar City." Courtesy of the Matheson History Museum.
“Canoeing on the Hillsboro (sic), Tampa, Fla. The Cigar City.” Courtesy of the Matheson History Museum.

Dixie Crystal beaches and crystal-clear rivers…preserved by environmentalists

The “best beaches in America” and natural treasures like the Suwanee River and Silver Springs scoop up over $5 billion in tourism tax revenue for Florida. But here, even nature is hard-won. The tourist industry and the state are still benefitting from a movement initiated a century ago by Florida women. At the turn of the nineteenth century, they plucked the feathers off their hats and fundraised for the Audubon Society. In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas introduced Everglades: River of Grass, with “There are no other Everglades in the world.” Marjorie Harris Carr saved the Ocklawaha River from the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal in 1971. In Tampa today, residents lead the restoration of seagrass marshes that clean the bay. For every sunset you watch while you’re here (hopefully all five!), know that the water literally reflects a long stand against environmental injustice and exploitation.

Historic neighborhoods and thriving business districts…built by immigrants

Tampa is also home to Ybor City, where you can stroll (or ride a Segway) past dozens of restaurants and art galleries housed in the Historic Landmark District. But a century ago, Ybor housed tens of thousands of Cuban, Spanish, and Italian cigar factory workers at the turn of the twentieth century. Historically significant domestic and industrial architecture, cooperative mutual aid societies, and radical Cuban revolutionary ideas propelled Ybor City forward as a centerpiece for Latin social movements. With the onset of mechanization and the new found popularity of cigarettes, Ybor slowly lost its industrial base, and with that, its unique working class Latino/a culture. The major blow occurred in 1931 when cigar manufacturers hired lower-paid white residents to replace striking Latino/a workers.

The bittersweet truth: Ybor City is just one of hundreds of historic communities in Florida and thousands in the United States where working people built lives and fought exploitation with creativity. Heydays and radical politics long since gone, their homes and workplaces, oftentimes reflective of those radical politics, add texture along the edges of twenty-first century prefab communities. Ybor City and others like it are worth the walk.

“West Tampa, Fla. Spanish and Cuban Tenement Houses.” Courtesy of the Matheson History Museum.
“West Tampa, Fla. Spanish and Cuban Tenement Houses.” Courtesy of the Matheson History Museum.

Floridians who love song and storytelling…made famous by Hurston, Kennedy, and Lomax

Mama Duck: “I wanta tell you all I can about slave days and I wanta tell it right. I done prayed and got all the malice out of my heart, and I ain’t gonna tell no lies for em or on em.”

—Stetson Kennedy, Palmetto Country

The Federal Writers Project blossomed in Florida with unrivaled enthusiasm, starting in 1935 when Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston teamed up to gather songs from workers in turpentine camps. Stetson Kennedy tagged along on a fieldwork excursion to Ybor City with the Works Progress Administration in 1939; it was their second trip that year alone to the Tampa area. These folklorists and writers, inspired at least in part by the struggles and stories of Florida’s diverse communities, inaugurated the American oral history tradition. Kennedy and Hurston, among others, advocated not only the archiving, but the wider retelling of racial exploitation in words stemming from experience.

The oral history tradition in Florida is so rich because it is so diverse, full of people who reaffirm their identities as Floridians and Americans. Tampa is only the front door; open it and you will hear the cacophony, a rich archive. I hope you find power in retracing the footprints of both the folklorist and her narrator.

Image Credit: “Tampa’s Skyline” by David Basanta. CC BY NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.