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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Fortune Taylor Bridge

Special congratulations to Gloria Jean Royster, a relative newcomer to Tampa, who restored some of our city’s heritage with the renaming last week of a bridge over the Hillsborough River. It was primarily Fred Hearns who, over the years, has been talking about this slight to African-American history, but then Fred (like me) has so many irons in historical fires that our suggestions tend to be dismissed as another nag. Gloria Jean, who moved from Up North to a downtown condo near Fortune Street, grabbed this tiger by its tail, walked over to City Hall, and talked to people until it happened.

City Council unanimously passed a resolution to take down two signs that identify the bridge as “Laurel Street” and replace them with signs saying “Fortune Taylor Bridge.” An important link to West Tampa, the bridge was called that until 1967, when the area’s first interstate cut through downtown. Someone, perhaps influenced by the developers of the condo that now is One Laurel Place, put that name on the bridge. As far as I and my historian friends know, “Laurel” was not a woman. Instead, it seems to be a reference to the aromatic shrub – a plant that doesn’t grow particularly well in our wet climate.

So, for context on this, here’s part of a letter I wrote to City Council at Gloria’s request:

Fortune Taylor and her common law husband, Benjamin, were brought here by the Howell family, which arrived by oxcart from South Carolina in the 1840s. Margaret Howell Lykes would be the founding mother of a great Tampa family, and Fortune Taylor was part of that pioneering effort.

When the Civil War eliminated slavery, she and Benjamin were among the first African Africans in Florida to take advantage of the fact that they now could legally marry. They wed in May 1866, saying that they had been together for about fifteen years.
That was just three years prior to Benjamin’s death in 1869, and Fortune carried on alone. With assistance from the federal Freedman’s Bureau – widely known as promising freed slaves “forty acres and a mule” -- she eventually owned a 33-acre farm north of downtown.

Beyond that, I would like to see City Council fund additional plaques to recognize other women who also moved from slavery to become landowners. The acreage now occupied by Gaslight Square once was owned by Kate Hendley, a former slave. Another former slave, Mary Brandon, homesteaded land near today’s I-275 downtown.

The area around Union Station was known as Dorcas Pond because two women named Dorcas owned the land on opposite sides of a pond. Dorcas Bryant and her four sons had been brought to Tampa by Eleanor Prince, a widow from Albany, Georgia, in 1856, and Dorcas Bryant eventually owned some sixty acres in that area. Dorcas Walker, who lived on the pond’s north end, was a slave in Kentucky, and after freedom, she took her children to Tampa on her own. Both the Bryants and the Walkers became longtime community leaders.

Knowing about these women would serve as role models for young African Americans. Council has done some of this with Riverwalk statues, but more can be done – and it can begin with the renaming of Fortune Street Bridge.

Children’s Campaigns

I used to know that it was late on a Friday afternoon because an e-mail would arrive from Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund. She founded it in 1973, after a decade of working for civil rights in Mississippi, with a particular emphasis on fulfilling Martin Luther King’s multi-racial “Poor People’s Campaign” via investing in children. According to their website, she still is alive. Maybe she just got tired of the Friday obligation. Or maybe I fell off the list because of failure to donate. Or, possibly, the organization is backing off of her religiosity: A title of one of Edelman’s many books, for example, is Guide My Feet: Prayers and Meditations on Loving and Working with Children.

Now I get many more e-mails from the Children’s Campaign. Completely secular and less national, its issues are more related to Florida; with a Tallahassee base, it is deeply involved in lobbying for children rights, especially in the juvenile justice system. And then there’s Champions for Children here in Tampa, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary – and for most of those years, was known as the Child Abuse Council. I’m especially impressed with their pregnancy and prenatal program that encourages breastfeeding, as well as their work with fathers and guardians, who too often don’t understand the difference between discipline and abuse.

I’m remembering that after I had published several books on women’s history, my New York agent took me to lunch and tried to persuade me to get into what she saw as the coming field of children’s rights. It was the era of Hillary Clinton’s first book, It Takes a Village, and the agent was right in predicting that advocacy for children was reaching an acme. But it’s researching and writing women’s history that I find fascinating, not advocacy. Of course, I do some of that along the way, but I still think that the best way to improve children’s lives is to improve that of those who bear them.

And the best way to do that is to understand the great historical injustices that have been done to women and girls – and that still continue. No other measurement of a nation’s peace and prosperity is as accurate as the status of its women. If females have lesser educational opportunity than males, if they are excluded from employment or are not paid equally, if they are forced into marriage and are not allowed to control their own bodies, then they cannot be effective mothers. They will raise sons who dominate through power and violence and war, and the result will be an unsuccessful society that endangers others.

From China to Tampa: Circling Back

Okay, I’m really getting paper off my desk, but this certainly follows up on the above topics. Hubby reads a lot of maritime history, and he clipped an article for me about piracy on the coast of China in the early nineteenth century. Children and wives routinely lived aboard pirate ships, and “Mr. and Mrs. Cheng Wage War” clearly revealed the status of Chinese women at that time. Speaking of 1801, it read:

“Cheng married a 26-year-old Cantonese prostitute. What her given name was, or if even she had one, is unknown. Until early this [20th] century, it was not uncommon for female children not to have given names: they were usually referred to simply as ‘Daughter Number One,’ ‘Daughter Number Two,’ or ‘Youngest Daughter.’ Cheng’s wife became known as Cheng I Sao – ‘Wife of Cheng.’” Her husband died a mere six years after she became “wife,” but she was known by that name for the rest of her life.

Despite many cultural limitations, she had a strong personality and clear ability, and in 1810, when the government began to crack down on piracy, she led “a delegation of women and children to call upon the Governor General in Canton. She successfully negotiated the terms of an armistice: the pirates would surrender their boats and weapons, but would be allowed to retain their ill-gotten fortunes… Two days later, more than17,000 pirates surrendered.” Cheng I Sao settled in Canton, established a casino, and died in 1844 as a wealthy woman.

She would have been an inspiration to Fortune Taylor two decades later, when Taylor became free and began to acquire wealth. But Taylor and other female landowners lost their property during “Reconstruction,” a term that really means the rebuilding of the old aristocracy after the federal government abandoned its commitment to former slaves. That was a result of the 1876 election, which is much too complicated to go into here – except as a reminder that elections have consequences. Pay attention. Your fortune, even your life, depends on that. Think about it when you cross Fortune Taylor Bridge.


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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