Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

2016 Heritage on the Riverwalk

December 12, 2016

Mayor Bob Buckhorn and attorney Steve Anderson, who heads the volunteer project for the Riverwalk’s Monument Trail, each made another fine speech when the 2016 honorees were unveiled last week. By city ordinance, they must have been dead for at least fifteen years; thus far, the committee of historians has chosen only people who died several decades ago. The point is to revive Tampa history and put it in the context of today.


Mayor Bob did that by emphasizing the many contributions immigrants made to Tampa and the current need for “sanctuary cities,” where police do not behave like fascists in persecuting people whose only crime is that they are not fluent in English. Steve’s chief point was that none of the honorees set out to be famous: They all were ordinary people who saw a need and addressed it. This involved more risk for some than for others, but all lived their lives to make a difference for the common good. In alphabetical order, they are:



Merobe Hooker Crane (1845-1898) was president of the “Board of Lady Managers” that created Tampa’s first hospital, as well as president of the Ladies Memorial Society that preserved its first cemetery, Oaklawn. She was part of a pioneer family: Her father, William Brinton Hooker, fought in the Second Seminole War of the 1830s and used the federal government’s Armed Occupation Act of 1842 to acquire land; Hooker’s Point on Tampa Bay is named for him.


The sixth of eleven children, Merobe wed at age 15. She lost her husband in the Civil War, and at 19, was a widow with a child. She nonetheless went on to run the Orange Grove Hotel, her family’s prewar home, and established it as the era’s most prominent place for travelers. She continued that even after a second marriage made her “Mrs. Judge Crane,” the title of her husband’s position. She made an especially important contribution as president of Emergency Hospital, the forerunner of Tampa General. Crane and other women built it in response to the disastrous 1887 yellow fever epidemic, which killed approximately 300 people in Hillsborough County – or ten percent of the 3,000 population.



Edward Daniel Davis (1904-1989) was an early civil rights activist. Sometimes called “E.D.,” he was born in Thomasville, Georgia. His father was an impoverished minister of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church – but young Davis worked hard at several schools and finally earned a master’s degree from Chicago’s prestigious Northwestern University in 1934. Tampa’s first African-American educator with a master’s degree, he became principal at segregated West Tampa Elementary School, as well as at Lomax Elementary in East Tampa.


Davis had moved to a high-school principal position in Ocala when, as president of the all-black Florida State Teachers Association, he led a lawsuit for equal pay during World War II. At the time, black teachers were paid about half as much as white ones, no matter what their credentials or assignments. The case eventually was won, but the Ocala school board fired him.


His wife, Alice Copeland Davis, also was a teacher, and she probably provided the major support for their four children while he formed the Florida Voters League, aiming to register African Americans to vote. He also served two terms as president of the Florida NAACP and especially championed the long struggle for admission of blacks to public law and graduate schools. Davis ran a gas station and a laundry in Ocala, but moved back to Tampa when the NAACP opened its state headquarters here in 1952. He worked for Central Life Insurance Company, which had been founded in 1922 by a group of African Americans that included internationally famous Mary McLeod Bethune.


It offered insurance to African Americans at a time when traditional companies would not sell to them. By 1935, it was operating in almost every Florida city, had some 300 employees, and had paid out $1 million in claims. The company built an impressive headquarters on North Boulevard near downtown Tampa, where Davis rose to be president. He served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the United Way and the Florida Council on Human Relations, and in the 1960s and early 1970s, played a role in preventing riots during desegregation.



Ignacio Haya (1842-1906) Most Tampans think of Vicente Ybor, who also was an early Riverwalk honoree, as the father of our cigar industry -- but the first cigars actually were produced at the firm of Sanchez & Haya. Born to a privileged family in Escalante, Spain, Igancio Haya became an international capitalist. He and his brother Ramon immigrated to New York in 1860, the year before the Civil War began. With his friend Serafin Sanchez, also a native of Spain, Ignacio began Sanchez y Haya in New York in 1867.


He married Fannie Milledoler in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1872; she was a steel heir, and the marriage was financially beneficial to him. They lived in New York, but when their only child died, they went to Spain and adopted Ramon’s daughter, Marina. He and his brother would split in the 1890s, however, because Ramon supported Spain in the Spanish-American War, while Ignacio sided with Cuba and its ally, the United States.


Meanwhile, the Haya family had become friends with the Ybor family while visiting Key West during New York winters. Galvino Gutierrez, who was interested in raising guavas, also visited there, and in 1885, Gutierrez, Haya, and Ybor investigated Tampa as a venture capital location. At the time, Hillsborough County had only some 3,000 residents and was in financial doldrums: Indeed, the only bank, a branch of a Jacksonville one, was about to close. After Haya’s deposit, manager T.C. Taliaferro literally reopened boxes of supplies that had been addressed to Jacksonville.


The Sanchez & Haya factory at 1507 7th Avenue in Ybor City rolled out its first cigars on April 13, 1886. Haya also was the founding president of Centro Espanol, a mutual aid society that operated a hospital and cemetery. He donated most of the money to begin it and joined other Ybor City industrialists in creating what was essentially a socialist community. Workers bought or rented their homes from their employer, and the mutual aid societies meant that they could be sure of societal support literally from the cradle to the grave.



Francisco Rodriguez (1916-1988) was born in Tampa, but his great-grandmother had been a slave in Cuba, and he grew up speaking Spanish. His parents were mixed-race, including even some Chinese, but they identified as black. They were cigar-makers who encouraged education, and after Meacham Elementary School, he attended two other segregated schools, Booker T. Washington Junior High School and Middleton High School. He moved on to the Tallahassee institution then known as Florida Agriculture & Mechanical College – denoting the era’s vocational limitations for black students. Rodriguez aimed higher and graduated with a major in language.


He taught one year in Fort Pierce, an East Coast town where he did not fit in because it was more rigidly segregated than Tampa. World War II was underway by then, and Rodriguez joined the Marine Corps. He served in the Pacific Theater of Operations and was on the Japanese Island of Okinawa when the US ended the war by dropping the atomic bomb. The Marines sent him to China, where he worked part-time as a librarian. He also taught English and Spanish there, while studying Chinese on his own.


Returning to Tampa, Rodriguez taught one year at Middleton High School, but was disappointed by how little things had changed. He moved to Washington, DC, and at enrolled Howard University Law School. Later, he did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and at Temple University in Philadelphia, both prestigious schools. He passed the Florida bar exam in 1951 and soon became the most prominent lawyer for Florida’s NAACP, defending unfairly accused black people and filing suits for equality. Considered a radical by most whites, his life was threatened more than once.


Many of his cases were in Florida towns that were more racist than Tampa, and traveling to them not only was dangerous, but also required the indignity of segregated restrooms, restaurants, and hotels. Perhaps his most famous case was that of two Lake County African Americans who were scheduled for execution on charges of raping a white woman. A white deputy confessed that his colleagues faked the evidence, and Rodriguez’s appeal for a stay of execution saved their lives. In another Lake County case, Rodriguez called the Governor’s Mansion at nearly midnight. Mrs. Leroy Collins answered the phone, woke her husband, and a few hours later, the governor forced the local sheriff to release an unfairly accused black teen.


After years of social justice litigation, Francisco Rodriguez became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, a denomination formed by free blacks before the Civil War. His niece, Sylvia Rodriguez Kimbell, became the first African-American woman on the Hillsborough County Commission in 1990, and his daughter, Dr. Cheryl Rodriguez, currently heads the Institute on Black Life at USF.



Norma Tina Russo (1902-1977) was born as Concetta Centonze in Naples, Italy. She began her operatic career at age 14, and after singing for famed Enrico Caruso, was recruited by the New York Metropolitan Opera. Her 1923 contract, written in Italian, is amazing: She earned $400 per performance, with a guarantee of 60 performances; plus $1,200 before she left Italy; plus first-class transportation across the Atlantic for her and her husband.


That husband proved her downfall. She soon bore three children, and when the Great Depression hit, he took his family on a pretended vacation to Tampa in 1932 – and left them without money to get back to New York. Tina spoke little English, and this international opera star had to support her children by teaching music under the WPA, a work-creating agency of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. She became a citizen in 1939, when fascist Benito Mussolini took over Italy, which prevented her from being classified as an enemy alien when the US entered World War II in 1941. She finally divorced her wandering husband in 1946.


Russo produced many operas, even mortgaging her Central Avenue home to pay the fees of singers she recruited. Her crowning achievement may have been in 1962, when she hired young Placido Domingo for Madame Butterfly: It was only his second appearance in the United States. Her financial situation worsened in 1969, when a burglar not only stole valuable artifacts, but also beat her so badly that she lost sight in one eye. She nonetheless produced Rigoletto from her hospital bed. When she finally retired in 1976, Bob Hope did a benefit performance to pay her debts – in gratitude for the USO entertainment she offered to troops in Tampa during World War II. It took considerable effort to find Russo’s family, but it was worth it. Generations of them came to the ceremony from all over the country.



Mack Ramsey Winton, MD (1874-1969) was a white man who did much for minorities. Born less than a decade after the Civil War, in the town of Viola in Coffee County, Tennessee, he graduated from medical school at the University of Nashville in 1899. After touring the South, he decided to settle in Tampa in 1902; in 1909, he married Marie Frances Salomonson at still-extant St. Andrews Episcopal Church. She was the daughter of former mayor Frederick August Salomonson, and both of her parents were natives of Holland.


The Wintons built a home at 801 Bayshore and had three daughters. One of them, Marie, later reminisced on having a pony and peacocks. Dr. Winton did not drive, she said, and her mother took him anywhere that was beyond walking distance. By 1916, he owned the Tampa Bay Infirmary, also on Bayshore -- but he liked surgery more than business and sold it to become a “contract,” or salaried, employee of Centro Espanol’s hospital. A magnificent structure built in 1912, it then was at 3100 Bayshore Boulevard.


Many Anglo physicians opposed the mutual aid societies’ clinics and hospitals as “socialized medicine,” and they tried to force their political views on Dr. Winton. Although he was the elected president of the Hillsborough Medical Society in 1938, Anglo doctors filed suit in 1939 to try to prevent him from also seeing patients at (taxpayer supported) Municipal Hospital. The courts ruled in favor of Dr. Winton.


Municipal Hospital admitted only whites, and much earlier, Dr. Winton was key to the first hospital for blacks on Florida’s West Coast. In 1908 – soon after his arrival – he removed a dangerous tumor on an African-American woman in the home of nurse Clara Frye (who was honored with a statue in the first year of the Riverwalk project). That surgery was the beginning of Clara Frye Hospital, which served African Americans until the 1969 integration of Tampa General. Dr. Winton also sponsored the education of Mary Cash, sending her out of state because no Florida nursing school accepted blacks.


He retired as medical director of Centro Espanol in 1952, but continued to see patients into his 90s. A Tampa Tribune article said he was the oldest practicing physician in Florida and probably the oldest in the United States. As he had always done, he charged according to ability to pay, which sometimes was no fee at all.



doris@dweatherford.com





Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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