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Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library celebrates the rich history of Tampa Central Avenue district

Open less than a month, the new Robert W. Saunders, Sr. Public Library is already steeped in the history of the community it serves.

The $7 million, two-story library is a historical archive for the once-thriving black Central Avenue district of Tampa’s pre-integration days. In the early 1900s, Central Avenue was home to black-owned businesses, schools and the Harlem Branch Library, which served as gathering point for community issues.

A Hall of History features interactive exhibits showcasing the athletes, entertainers, churches and schools that were part of Tampa’s past. An African-American history and genealogy library contains hundreds of digitalized oral histories and databases for research. A panel board and bust of the library’s namesake, a former Florida field director for the NAACP and one-time director of the Hillsborough County Office of Equal Opportunity, greets visitors.

Carrie Hurst, principal librarian and branch manager of the library at 1505 N. Nebraska Ave., describes the 26,244-square-foot library, which opened in mid-August, this way.

“A lot of thought went into the details as a way to incorporate history in the decor. They all make a statement about the community they are in. It pulls together the history in one centerpiece; a person can come here and can enrich one’s self in the history of black Tampa.”

While history is interwoven in the new library, it also has the traditional books, videos and other instructional materials and children’s programs. The children’s area has a connecting walkway to Booker T. Washington Elementary School, and the two entities have a partnership.

The library also has a bank of computers, supplemental laptops, that can be used anywhere in the building and iPads in the children’s section. An oral history recording studio is available to add to the oral history collection, and a 350-seat meeting room, complemented by a catering kitchen and a kitchenette, is available for free to the public for community meetings. However, use of the catering kitchen costs $150 because it must be professionally cleaned, Hurst explained.

The library is funded by county funds but it also receives support from two nonprofit organizations, the Robert W. Saunders Foundation, which brings historical, cultural outreach to the community, and the Ada T. Payne Friends of the Urban Libraries, which provides programs to three libraries, including Saunders.

Mary James, president of the Friends, is the granddaughter of Payne, who served as a library at the Harlem Branch Library.

“It was a vision. It is a dream come true; we waited 10-12 years for this,” said James, a retired teacher. “What this has evolved to has been worth the wait. It is remarkable to see the past, present and the future. Everything is so high-tech; it’s almost surreal.”

Between 100 and 200 people use the library every day, Hurst said.

“We expect that will increase as many people don’t even know that we are back,” Hurst said of the building that took more than a year to complete.

A part of the old library, which stood at the same site, was preserved and incorporated into the new building. A stone mural, “Symbols of Mankind,” created by local artist Joe Testa-Secca, was removed before demolition and placed on the Nebraska Avenue front wall on the new building.

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