NewsBlack History Month

Actions

An orator and a seamstress: Tampa's pivotal role in shaping Black history

Black History Month and the City of Tampa's impact
Ann Lowe and Booker T. Washington.
Posted at 7:44 AM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 08:06:32-05

TAMPA, Fla. — The Henry B. Plant Museum, located at what was once one of the grandest hotels in Florida, is full of items and stories that are sometimes lost to time, then reborn again.

The museum recently held an exhibition on Booker T. Washington's visit to Tampa in 1912. The exhibit called "When The Train Comes Along" highlighted Washington's impact on the sometimes fractured African American cultures in Tampa.

"That's a really important story for us," said Dr. Charles Groh, an Associate Professor at the University of Tampa and guest curator for the exhibit. "The reason he spoke at the casino is that local African Americans organized to have that space for this speech, because at a time where segregation which was new, was pushing them out of the public sphere."

At the time, Washington was on a whirlwind tour of Florida. His presence, at the now destroyed Tampa Bay Casino, and his voice was vital for all Black Americans as the lines of segregation hardened.

"And, so the Black community in Tampa was very complex," Groh said. "Afro-Cubans and African Americans did not see themselves sharing the same experience. And in fact, Booker T. Washington's visit was one of the first formal occasions that brought them together. After he spoke at the casino, there was a reception that was held in his honor in Ybor City, and it was hosted by an Afro-Cuban society."

Washington's speaking tour through Florida was dangerous, lynchings were common, trains were segregated, and the Tampa Bay Hotel near where Washington spoke was off-limits.

"He would not have been able to stay in the hotel because he was African American," Groh said. "And then the Tampa City government created what was called the White Municipal Party in 1908, which basically removed African Americans from any kind of electoral participation here. So, at the time that Booker T. Washington came, was exactly the time where things were really becoming very entrenched."

Washington's speech highlighted the divide among whites and Blacks even more.

"So, the seating was segregated. So, if you were white, you purchased your tickets in a downtown drugstore. If you were Black, you purchased your tickets at the William Cigar Company, which was a Black-owned business," Groh said. "Somebody did actually put sheeting down the center to basically prevent whites from actually even seeing the Black portion of the audience. But Booker T. Washington refused to speak until that was removed, and so it was."

Washington's speech was a crucial part of building the foundation of what we know as Civil Rights today.

"I think Washington was extraordinarily adept at being able to speak to multiple audiences in a way that I think is very rare in the context of the period. And I think when he is, I think oversimplified in popular representations as an accommodationist," Groh said. "So, there is no African American activism that can't in some way be traced back to the work of Booker T. Washington."

That same exhibit space at the Plant Museum is now sharing the story of another African American who broke barriers in her own way.

In 1915, three years before Washington spoke in Tampa; Ann Lowe, a then-unknown seamstress, moved from Alabama to Tampa. Lowe was hired to make dresses for the Tampa elite.

Lindsay Huban, Plant Museum Relations Manager, showed us two dresses that Lowe designed and hand-stitched for the Gasparilla Royal Court in the early 1920s.

"So these were coronation gowns that you would have been wearing to the fancy balls that were taking place in the Tampa Bay Hotel," Huban said. "Mrs. DC Lee from Tampa saw her work and thought it was just fantastic and brought her to Tampa to be a seamstress here. And within a few short years, the prominent families in the area were all going to Ann Lowe to get their dresses and gowns designed."

Her skills and attention to detail allowed Lowe to become the go-to fashion designer. Despite the color of her skin, she broke barriers.

"It's pretty incredible that this Black woman was brought to Tampa that traveled, you know, partway across the country just taken a chance that hopefully this wasn't going to turn out badly for her, and it turned into a pretty great story," Huban said. "She was incredibly successful. She became very well known. She even designed Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress when she married John F. Kennedy."

Tampa's annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival helped put Lowe on the map. Lowe made the dresses for Sarah Lykes Keller, Queen of the 1924 Gasparilla Royal Court, and Katherine Broaddus, a handmaid in the 1926 court.

"We want people to understand just how important Lowe was and what a connection she had to Gasparilla, which is our Tampa thing. It's our history," Huban said. "And, she was part of it. This was sort of her launching pad that allowed her to be as successful as she was that fashion designers around the world today know the name Ann Lowe and now everyone in Tampa can too."