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Library to Preserve African American History

Central Avenue was once the Harlem of Tampa, where black-owned businesses flourished. The historic Jackson boarding house rented rooms to stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. Former Florida N-double ACP director, Robert W. Saunders was a civil rights activist born and raised just around the corner.

Tampa is rich with African American history and the Hillsborough Library branch named after Saunders is looking to preserve that history. They are kick starting a Story Corps project to help capture the oral history of the black experience.The Robert W. Saunders Senior Library stands in an area that's seen better days. Just across the street are closed down buildings with boarded up windows and chained fences – the aftermath of a notorious housing project that was recently put to the wrecking ball. .

Chief librarian Renelda Sells says that area wasn't always that way.

"That used to be the area where African Americans went for everything", explained Sells. "That's where they went for their groceries, their barber, their shopping, their restaurants, their clubs, everything. That's where you went if you were Black in Tampa."

The Saunders library is in the process of collecting memories of when Central Avenue was a bustling area. To help with this process, librarians applied for a Story Corps grant. Story Corps is a nonprofit organization that provides people with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of their lives. Copies of all interviews are preserved in the Library of Congress.

The Saunders library was one of 10 nationally to receive audio recording equipment and a $2,500 grant to record the oral African American history.

At a recent kick off event, USF associate professor Dr. Cora Dunkley discussed the importance of storytelling.

"Admittedly, believe it or not, you are a storyteller and your stories are among the seeds that need to be planted for future generations so they can connect with us and tell our stories and those they create to the next generations", Dunkley said.

Dunkley encouraged the audience members and residents of the area to sign up and tell their stories.

"As I look around this room, observing all of the storytellers before me, I see story after story after story after story that needs to be shared and collected", said Dunkley.

The audience cheered. Betty Lopez was one of them. She's been living in Hillsborough County for 20 years and is a part of the Florida Genealogical Society. She says it's important to sign up.

"It clearly indicates that we need to capture the history now because once they pass, the history is gone", Lopez said. "There’s an African proverb that says when an elder dies, the library closes. And the library has closed with a lot of my relatives."

Another audience member was Donald Smith. His father owned a shoe business right on Central Ave.

“And blacks always ganged up on Central Avenue. We sat down with strangers, stars and everything" Smith remembered. "And then you sit on the curb, if you had to think about something, you sat on the curb and figured it out. I’m saying, no one went hungry."

Smith says there were no strangers on Central Ave.

"Where all the black men who had businesses and stuff would get together like brothers, it was like a family hood and Central Park was like a real family and you was always welcome", said Smith.

He said it was important to sign up to tell his story.

"It means a lot", Smith said. "To young people to realize what they lost and what they’re about to lose if they don’t step up to the plate. "

The current redevelopment happening in the area near the library – with new apartment complexes, a Black History museum, and a renovated Perry Harvey Senior Park - promises to revitalize that old Afro-centric hub. And the Saunders library isn't staying behind.

Chief librarian Renelda Sells says the library will be closing in December. It'll be torn down and rebuilt to three times its current size. The new library will have a catering kitchen, a community room - and more importantly - an African American Research Library.

People are encouraged to call the Saunders library, sign up to recount their own stories – and add their chapters to that history.