Family, Religion, and Education: A Profile of African-American Life in Tampa, Florida, 1900-1930

Article excerpt

Some years ago a number of historians argued that the urban environment of early twentieth-century America was so destructive for African Americans that it invariably led to widespread poverty, family disintegration, and overall community disorientation.(1) More recently, however, scholars of black urban life in the North and South have countered that this view wrongly discounts the persisting strength of black cultural life.(2) This essay examines the familial, religious, and educational life of blacks in the Southern city of Tampa, Florida, between 1900 and 1930 and finds much evidence to support the latter view. Family, church and school were fundamental institutions within the African American community which worked in concert not only to assure black survival in the face of adversity, but in many instances allowed black people to prosper and advance in spite of a rigid caste system. Because of the strength of these institutions in Tampa, as well as in many Southern and Northern cities, the breakdown of the black community did not occur to the extent that historians once thought. Enduring almost overwhelming misfortune in the forms of economic privation, white supremacy, segregation, disfranchisement, and white violence, blacks developed strong institutions that created and sustained a vigorous, coherent sense of community.

Although scholars have examined the history of African Americans in numerous Southern and Florida cities, surprisingly little has been written about the black community of Tampa, one of the South's most unique cities, well known for its Latin flavor, high quality Havana cigars and Cuban cuisine. During the early decades of the present century, the energy and labor of Tampa's African Americans contributed significantly to the town's dramatic growth into an important multicultural, urban manufacturing center.(3) As a boom town its expansion was nothing short of phenomenal as the overall population leaped from 15,839 in 1900, to 37,782 in 1910, to 51,608 in 1920, and finally to 101,161 in 1930.(4) Despite their origins in the Old South, Tampa and surrounding Hillsborough County have been classified by historians as "largely a product of the New South" because values and institutions from the late nineteenth century dominated life there through the 1920s. Furthermore, this community displayed a number of features commonly associated with other Southern urban regions: outside capital financed its development into an industrial center; Southern-born whites comprised the local elite; and the New South biracial caste system was the rule in race relations.(5) Nevertheless, in some important respects Tampa resembled many Northern cities. Like Pittsburgh and Chicago, for example, in the early decades of the twentieth century it experienced not only a sizable influx of foreign-born immigrants (largely Italians and Hispanics in the case of Tampa) and rural blacks seeking economic opportunity, but also the social and racial tensions that accompanied such circumstances.

Tampa's black population multiplied significantly in the early years of the century as it grew from 4,382 in 1900, to 8,951 in 1910, to 11,531 in 1920, and 21,172 in 1930. Even so, it clearly grew at a slower rate than the white population, declining from about 28 percent of the total in 1900 to some 21 percent in 1930. Additionally, census records reveal that Tampa's black community in those years was of diverse origins: in 1920, 39.8 percent of the city's blacks were born outside of Florida, and in 1930 it was up to 43.7 percent.(6) Tampa appears to have attracted many of its new black residents from the farms and villages, not only from the Florida countryside, but from other nearby Southern states such as Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia as well as from Cuba and the West Indies.(7) They undoubtedly came to escape the insecurity of rural life or to experience the attractions of the metropolis; but above all, they came seeking economic betterment in one of the South's most rapidly expanding municipalities. …