A Real American Story: Tampa’s Fortune and a Tale of Straz Land

historical marker

PROLOGUE:

JOSE PERFINO
EL INDIO
A CUBAN PIRATE
KILLED 1850

MR. HUBBARD
A CUBAN PIRATE
FOUND DEAD IN WOODS
JUNE 18, 1850

Just beyond these square chunks of gray granite nestled amid the carpet of dead leaves in Oaklawn Cemetery lurks the city bus station. People get on and off the buses. The buses heave, sigh, trundle into traffic. Beyond the bus station, cars streak across I-275 shuttling between St. Pete and Orlando, yet only several yards away from Mr. Hubbard and El Indio, a gleaming alabaster mausoleum looms. It’s the final resting place of an important man; that’s plain to see. This smooth rock shrine houses the remains of Vincente Martinez Ybor, patron of Ybor City, cigar boss and wealthy entrepreneur whom local history remembers as a man who charted the course for one of the most promising money-making multi-cultural cigar cities of the United States.

Between the pirates and the man who invented Ybor City rests yet another humble granite marker, about the size of a medium Amazon delivery box, of another Tampa entrepreneur who cultivated fruits from her large parcel of land next to the Hillsborough River, made pies and sold them to any one of the 6,000 people who called Tampa home back in her day.

This marker says

TAYLOR
FORTUNE
1825-1906

She shares the space on the granite’s face with her husband Benjamin; yet, if you dig, you won’t find their remains. Not under that marker, anyway. Their bodies are somewhere else in Oaklawn, cast into that nebulous, undocumented section of history called The Slave Section.

Even though neither one was a slave.

Not when they died, anyway. Which brings us to the start of our story. But you will have to stop and sit awhile, if you want to know what we just found out about Fortune Taylor and what she has to do with The Straz.

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In the mid-1800s, there was a white couple named Howell using slave labor in South Carolina. Two of those enslaved people were a man and a woman. They loved each other.

Their names were Benjamin and Fortune.

The Howells moved to Hernando County to set up an orange grove, bringing Benjamin and Fortune with them. The end of slavery arrived in 1865. So, by 1866, Benjamin and Fortune had left the Howells in their rearview mirror and staked out a new life for themselves in a desolate, cattle-rustling, drunk and disorderly town called Tampa. For the Taylors, it was freedom. They went to the courthouse and married as free people.

fortune taylor marriage license

Fortune and Benjamin’s marriage license in the bottom right corner, deciphered below:

To the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the County of Hillsborough and the State of Florida. Whereas Benjamin Taylor, a Freedman and Fortune Taylor a freed woman have applied as one to join them in Marriage, And whereas they have lived harmoniously together as man and wife for several years. I have this day joined the above named Benjamin Taylor and Fortune Taylor in the bonds of holy Matrimony, according to the Act of the Legislation of the State of Florida passed as it’s late Session.

(signed) F Branch
Local Elder of the M. E. Church [South]
Tampa Fla
5th May 1866

They knew the land. They knew work. They knew how to use both to grow things that made life and money. On January 20, 1869, Benjamin filed a claim to homestead 33 acres next to the Hillsborough River. Benjamin and Fortune took to their land to make life grow: peaches, guavas, oranges. The ownership of self. Of land. Of labor.

The future looked like acres of sweet, delicious fruit. They survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the ensuing epidemic of Reconstruction Republicans who came shortly thereafter to enforce the post-Civil War policies of the federal government. But what is a Reconstructionist to a human being who survived enslavement to become a successful citrus farmer? Not much.

Then, Benjamin died. Late in 1869, less than three years after their wedding day, Fortune Taylor found herself widowed, newly free and now head of almost three dozen acres of land as an African American woman almost as far South as you could go.

But Fortune was fortune. She was an entrepreneur, too, beloved by her community, and anointed with a high title. Maybe she wasn’t a patron, or a tabaquero, or a mayor or city councilman—all of those titles were denied her because of her gender and skin color—but in her life, in her circumstances, in her neighborhood, they called her Madame. She earned that respect for building something meaningful and dignified in Tampa during a time when the town itself was struggling to be something more than a chaotic river outpost.

So, the woman with the baked goods, the woman with the land, was known around Tampa as Madame Fortune Taylor, by white and black alike. Remembered as a “short, stout woman,”* Madame Fortune Taylor donated some of her property to start St. Paul’s, the second oldest church in Tampa today. Another section she sold to Mayor Edward Clarke so he could develop a subdivision in 1878.

The road leading from downtown Tampa to her homestead? That became Fortune Street—the same one that exists in downtown Tampa today. Take Fortune Street to Doyle Carlton to the door of the Patel Conservatory and you’ll be on Madame Fortune Taylor’s old orange groves. We’d like to imagine she’d be happy with the legacy of her land becoming a place for arts education for kids, as she was known as someone who loved and was loved by children.

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Take Fortune Street all the way to the end in the other direction and guess where you’ll be?

At the bus station that lurks right next to Oaklawn Cemetery. Somewhere, in there, she and Benjamin watch us now, pulling their names from the shadows of history into the light of our present day. They were not pirates; they were not slaves. They were builders and survivors, creators and lovers, free people with an important story to tell.

 

 

EPILOGUE:

Ersula & Gloria

Ersula K. Odom and Gloria Jean Royster, active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society.

So, we wish we could tell you that we came into this amazing story on our own through our own coolness and research into Straz land history, but we did not.

We’re riding the coattails of people like historians Fred Hearns and Canter Brown, men who have dug, fought for and unearthed exquisite stories from African-American history, Tampa’s in particular, and who have been writing and speaking about Madame Fortune Taylor for years. We also relied heavily on Lucy Jones’s 2007 article on the history of the Fortune Street Bridge in Cigar City Magazine, and tampapix.com’s history of the bridge as well.

But, none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for two important women working with Tampa’s history now:

We came to know Madame Fortune Taylor through two incredibly cool ladies, writers, researchers, and performing artists themselves, Gloria Jean Royster and Ersula K. Odom, who are active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society. They contacted our executive administrative assistant extraordinaire, Patricia Griggs, to ask if The Straz would be interested in sponsoring the banner for the Fortune Taylor Bridge dedication ceremony on May 20, 2018—since we now sit on part of Madame Fortune’s estate.

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Executive Administrative Assistant Patricia Griggs’ office overlooks the Fortune Taylor Bridge and most of the Taylor homestead. Today, we know the Taylors’ land as the area roughly from I-275 at the river to the Patel Conservatory.

We loved Gloria Jean and Ersula so much we brought them into our offices for an exclusive interview about the Fortune Taylor Bridge, their research into Madame Fortune Taylor and the kind of connection historical information awakens in people living today.

You can hear the highlights of that interview on Act2, our official Straz Center podcast, going live on our Soundcloud station May 10. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

The dedication of Fortune Taylor Bridge takes place Sunday, May 20 at 10 a.m. on the east bank of the Hillsborough River. You can keep tabs on this tale by following Fortune’s Friends on Facebook.

Madame Fortune Banner Art

We also wish we could tell you we know all of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story, but we do not know that, either. Some years have been lost, and some land transactions can’t be proven without records.

However, thanks to many devoted researchers working with spotty, racially discriminatory records that excluded so many valuable members of society, a skein of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story exists today. The Straz knows more about itself because of their efforts.

We would also like to thank David Parsons and Todd Ciardiello, librarians at the John F. Germany Library next door, who helped us tremendously in tracking down photographs and information from the Florida history archives. We used photos from the Florida Memory Project and the Burgert Brothers Collection from the Germany Library’s digital archives.

If you have any information on what happened to Madame Fortune Taylor from 1878-1885, please contact us. We are also looking for photos and for any transactional records about her selling her land after 1885.

*this quote is from Canter Brown’s oral history interview of Dr. Robert W. Saunders, Jr.

The Man Behind the Mission

Governor and former Tampa mayor Bob Martinez on growing up Tampanian, the creation of The Straz and what it meant for the growth of Tampa.

Morsani bw

Construction of Festival Hall, now Carol Morsani Hall.

With Caribbean blue eyes, an easy smile and a rambling drawl that flows through stories of Tampa history like the Hillsborough River ambles through this vast county, Robert “Bob” Martinez makes for an enchanting conversationalist on the subject of The Straz and what Tampa was like all those many years before it housed a world-class performing arts center.

This season, we celebrate 30 years of The Straz. As part of this celebration, we are gathering stories, “the million little stories that make up who we are,” and we decided that we might as well start at the beginning – with Bob Martinez.

Martinez’s grandparents came to Tampa from Spain, mingling with the other immigrant cultures of Ybor City and West Tampa – Italians, Cubans and Germans – and, like those new Americans, Martinez’s grandparents joined the mutual aid societies of the area.

“I grew up here, and we belonged to Centro Español. For twenty-five cents or fifty cents a week for your whole family, you had hospital care, a clubhouse, doctors, a cemetery. It really was care from birth to death,” Martinez recounts from the penthouse conference room in the Regions Bank building where, though in his 80s, he works as a senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight, LLP. From this bird’s-eye view, the swooping lines of the deep blue Hillsborough Bay hug the sprawling cluster of white and terra cotta rooftops. Like exotic hot air balloons, railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s Moorish minarets spring skyward, an opulent reminder of Tampa’s first renaissance, now on the campus of University of Tampa, home to the Bob Martinez Athletic Center. This view looks like it does now mostly because of Martinez’s mayoral agenda in the early ’80s, the second renaissance for Tampa.

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Robert “Bob” Martinez.

As worker-centered social clubs, the mutual aid societies came to represent the hard-working and community-centered ethos that would dominate Tampa until the abrupt socio-economic changes of the mid-20th century. Part of the vital fabric of the mutual aid societies was culture. “I went to live productions all the time,” Martinez says. “We had live talent [at the mutual aid societies], and I was taken to all the shows at five and six years old even though I probably fidgeted through most of them.”

In school, Martinez worked on the grade plays – 6th, 9th and senior year – as crew. “I wasn’t a participant. They were mostly musicals.” (He confided later to a singing ability so bad he won’t even attempt to exercise it in the shower or car. However, he’s a crackerjack dancer.)

Dirt roads led in and out of his neighborhood, near where Raymond James Stadium sits today. To get to any excitement, you had to board a streetcar that would click and clack to the action: downtown. “In the ’40s and ’50s, the entertainment center was Downtown Tampa,” he recalls. “Movie houses, hotels. All the hotels had restaurants and live entertainment. I dated my future wife, Mary Jane Marino, at every movie house in Downtown Tampa. Downtown was the core, and that probably stuck in my mind. All the streetcars led to downtown – that’s impressionable to someone young, as I was then. I probably got it in my mind that anything that would happen for Tampa would happen downtown.”

By the 1970s, Martinez, who had been a much-loved high school teacher, bought Café Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant with a reputation for attracting a who’s-who from business, politics and entertainment. “If any famous actors were in town filming a movie, somebody would bring them by Café Sevilla,” Martinez says. “We had Ricardo Montalban, Vikki Carr, Fernando Lamas.” People knew Bob Martinez, and a month after he took over the restaurant, then-Governor Reubin Askew called Martinez to serve on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The call jump-started Martinez’s political life, and, in 1979, he announced his mayoral bid. The major focus of his platform?

“I announced I wanted to build a performing arts center. Downtown.”

parking lot

Photo of downtown Tampa before the Straz Center was built.

Martinez, who would later advance to Governor of Florida and eventually serve as Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush, saw that the Downtown Tampa of his youth had stagnated, mired in random industrialization and unable to revitalize after the cigar industry collapsed. “In July of ’79, I released three white papers, the first one explaining how job creation and economic development were tied to the performing arts center. You see, in order to attract new businesses, the CEOs and their spouses would need something to do, a reason to want to be here. They wouldn’t want to come to a place with limited culture. That’s how I sold it. I tied it to economic development. Nobody was going to come here without some kind of culture.”

At a candidate forum on Davis Islands, Martinez openly spoke about his vision for Tampa and how that vision depended on 1) a performing arts center and 2) everybody’s buy-in. “I explained that bringing a performing arts center to Tampa allowed middle-class people and others to enjoy Broadway and other shows. For a lot of people, it would be the first time in their lives. But it was more than that. A performing arts center would give children who were arts-oriented a chance to develop their strengths and talents. Children who were arts-oriented ought to have the same opportunities to develop those talents as children who have athletic talent, and we had Little League fields all over the county.”

The idea took. The daily papers supported the platform, and Martinez received almost zero push-back on the proposal – impressive, considering it carried a multi-million-dollar price tag that taxpayers, would, in part, cover. He won the 1979 election.

“As soon as I was elected, I gathered a task force to figure out how to build one [a performing arts center]. I called H.L. Culbreath, who was a good friend and customer at the restaurant, and I wanted him to chair the task force. We compiled a list of names, H.L. made the calls, and we had it.”

Groundbreaking

The groundbreaking for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.

Martinez and the performing arts center task force faced a formidable challenge: how to raise the funds. “This had never been done in Tampa before, raising that much money,” Martinez says. The $15 million he thought would cover the one-hall center was a far cry from the 25-cents-a-week price tag of the mutual aid societies. But, the community spirit was still there, carried on the wind from the remaining shells of cigar factories lining West Tampa and Ybor City. “We realized, though, that if people were going to have to give, it should be to a non-profit organization, not the local government,” Martinez remembers, “so the city doesn’t run it, but the non-profit does.”

The design phases of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (renamed the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009) proved challenging, with a few hiccups along the way but no major bumps in the road. The biggest problem – if you could call it that – was that everyone involved with the concept and construction wanted the best of the best. “The biggest surprise in the whole project was how big it ended up being,” he laughs. “I thought it would be one hall – not two or three or four! But, H.L. kept saying ‘I think we need to add this … ’ and it just sort of grew. The people on the committee were all local business and community leaders, we were doing this for our community, for the growth of Tampa, and a lot of the people involved in the construction were local. We wanted to do it right.” The total costs far exceeded Martinez’s initial thoughts, but the community commitment and business leadership followed through to the end, when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for business in 1987.

The success of The Straz’s public-private partnerships set the standard of business for what Martinez calls “a community ticket facility.” “It’s the best model,” he says. “We used the same non-profit concept we established for the performing arts center for the zoo and all the museums with ticket sales.”

Many people don’t know that, before the plans for The Straz began in earnest, a group of “baseball enthusiasts” courted Martinez over lunch to build a pro baseball stadium instead of the performing arts center. Martinez enjoyed his meal, thanked the enthusiasts and said no. “I ran on building a performing arts center, not a baseball stadium. I had to keep my promise.” Martinez, himself a baseball talent who passed on a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to get married and attend college, saw that the zeitgeist for Tampa’s second renaissance would be in the arts.

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Grand opening celebration of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1987. (Photo: Cliff McBride)

“If, for some reason the performing arts center hadn’t materialized, it would have been first a denial to the young people who needed arts education. Second, it would have been a denial to people who can’t afford to go to Broadway. It would have had an adverse impact on recruiting business. A performing arts center showed that we were a growing, sophisticated community,” Martinez says. “If we hadn’t built the Straz Center, Tampa wouldn’t have seen growth of the same magnitude.”

An unintended outcome of building a performing arts center as a juggernaut of metropolitan growth was the effect The Straz’s success had on subsequent projects. “Building a performing arts center opened the citizens of Tampa Bay’s pocketbooks for other organizations. The zoo, the history center … once you invest, you’re an advocate. You have skin in the game,” he says. “As you can see, I’m real proud of our community.”

Martinez left Tampa for several years to follow his political trajectory – which, incidentally, led to a parallel side-job related to the performing arts. He landed a walk-on role as a customs officer in the James Bond film License to Kill after meeting with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who invited him to the set in Key West. Broccoli later allowed Martinez to use pre-release screenings of the film to raise funds for a children’s organ transplant foundation. Martinez then got a speaking part on a “drugs and go-fast boats” pilot for a television movie called Thunder Boat Row but it didn’t get picked up.

Despite the fact that he has both an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing and a former place in the Presidential Cabinet, Martinez returned home, to the place of his cherished memories, his grandkids and to the bustling city poised on the next renaissance. In his spare time, he works towards efforts to restore and renovate Centro Español, the mutual aid society building of his youth. But, he is not riding on nostalgia.

View from river

“The future looks wonderful. For a city our size to have two sports teams, arena football and all of our cultural institutions with hardly any corporate headquarters … that’s one great story to tell about the Tampa people. That they wanted these things for themselves. To me, it’s an incredible story,” he says. “And what we have at the Straz Center is second to none.”

Bob Martinez gambled on the economic savvy of relying on the performing arts to drive growth – and won. This incredible story started simply enough, with a teacher-turned-restaurateur who knew that the power of culture could transform a town into an international destination.

As If Going to the Theater Wasn’t Fun Enough, They Had to Invent the Lottery

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A crowd of people eagerly await the results of a ticket lottery for Book Of Mormon at The Straz.

It all started with Rent.

When that show blew up and became the hottest ticket in town, the producers tried a radical idea to make the show more accessible to as many theatergoers as possible: sell the first two rows of orchestra seats for a scant $20 a pop on a first-come-first-served basis. In no time, students lined up at dawn to purchase these “rush” tickets when the box office opened, and the idea – like the show – was a huge hit.

Since then, producers have been concocting fun ways to get massively discounted tickets into the hands of the widest possible audience. Recently, one of the most exciting pre-show events to emerge for these ultra-affordable tickets is the lottery.

That’s right. A good, old-fashioned luck of the draw: go to the theater, write your name on a card, drop in in a box, then wait. Competition is fierce, and hope runs high, with sometimes 200 people vying for up to one pair of coveted tickets to shows such as Matilda, Kinky Boots and Wicked.

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A few hours before curtain, a representative of the show (or theater) passes a hand over the box as the crowd of fans holds its breath with anticipation. The person reaches in the box, draws one card, then reads the name to the waiting crowd. Most groan, but there is one cheer – if your name comes out, you’re the lucky winner of one or two seats to the big show at a fraction of the box office rate. As technology advanced, the old-fashioned ways included a new-fangled digital lottery, where patrons can throw their proverbial names in the hat via a cell phone app – and be notified by text if they are winners.

One show hosting a pre-curtain lottery is Wicked*, running in Morsani Hall Feb. 1-26. This thrilling game of odds gives all people a chance to buy a ticket and take a ride to the other side of Oz. And if you lose … who cares? You can always come back and try again tomorrow. But you gotta show up in person; there’s no app to get you to Emerald City on the cheap.

*A limited number of tickets will be available by lottery for the performances of Wicked. Entries will be accepted at the Straz Center Ticket Sales Office two and a half hours prior to each performance. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $25 each – cash only. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid identification to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.