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St. James and Mr. Monroe

Herman Monroe spent years researching the history of Tampa's black Episcopal church. In doing so, he discovered some of his own heritage.

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2002

TAMPA -- Their bloodlines flowed from the Bahamas and Cuba to Key West, where their busy hands rolled tobacco leaves into cigars for day wages in the late 1800s. Some had followed cigar magnate Vicente Martinez-Ybor when he moved his business from Key West to Tampa. But there was a problem: On Sundays they wanted to worship in an Episcopal church, just as they had in Key West. But there was no black Episcopal church in Tampa.

So in 1891, they built their own.

Years later, Herman Monroe would thirst for knowledge of St. James Episcopal Church's humble beginnings. But in the course of uncovering its history, he would learn about his own heritage, as well.

Monroe, 69, is a descendant of those black Cuban migrants and a former member of St. James. In 1976, he was organizing a church event and wanted to find some history on the congregation. He began digging through books, visiting grave sites and libraries, collecting records, old pictures and newspaper stories.

That's when he found out about the cigar workers and the migration from Key West. Tampa's white Episcopals had a church, St. Andrew's, but the blacks from Key West weren't allowed to pray there. The white Episcopals did let them inside to hold special ceremonies, like baptisms, though. Monroe's great aunt was baptized there in 1890.

By 1891, the black Episcopals were gathering at each other's homes for services. They saved up from washing and ironing, and they sold chickens for $100 worth of wood and building goods. They built St. James with their own hands. The Rev. Matthew McDuffie, the first St. James priest, helped. Soon they had a sanctuary on India Street.

Monroe realized that his great-grandparents, Ramon and Susan Claire Valdes, were likely among the founders. The church soon added a school and a rectory. In time, it moved to a brick building on an adjacent lot.

St. James was always part of Monroe's life. When he was young, his father moved to Pennsylvania, leaving the family behind. On a maid's wages, Hortensia Perez Monroe raised him and three other children. They all caught the streetcar from their house, not far from the cigar factories in Ybor City, to St. James on Sunday. Monroe would listen to the sermon and glance up at parishioners who were his role models. They were cigar industry workers, doctors, lawyers, proud teachers.

Monroe decided he would teach, too: Spanish, the language he had grown up speaking fluently at home. He graduated from Middleton High School in 1951 and later majored in Spanish at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

People like Monroe were called black Cubans back then, although some prefer the term Afro-Cubans today. His blue eyes, wavy hair and light, butter skin have always attested to a mixed ancestry. But as far as the rules of the South were concerned, it all added up to colored in the 1950s and '60s. So the only place he could teach was at a black school. When he graduated from college, there were no openings for a Spanish teacher at Middleton or Blake High. Monroe initially found work in Gainesville. He eventually moved back to the area, where he worked for 29 years at schools in Lake Wales, about 60 miles east of Tampa. He retired in 1989. On weekends, Monroe drove to Tampa, stayed with relatives and went to St. James.

He became the church historian, traveling to New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, tracking down leads on St. James' history. After 10 years, he found the grave of McDuffie, the first priest, about 11/2 miles from the original church site. McDuffie, the son of former slaves, graduated from college, Monroe found out. His story was similar to Absalom Jones, the first black man ordained in the Episcopal church. Both busied themselves by helping parishioners and working in the black community. "Isn't it amazing that they did so much with so little?" Monroe wrote of the two men in a St. James centennial booklet.

In the midst of all that he was learning, Monroe decided to start the John E. Culmer Southwest Florida Chapter of Black Episcopalians. He is also active in the Afro-Cuban club, La Union Marti-Maceo.

While reading the newspaper one day, he saw that the public library had old pictures taken by some commercial photographers, the Burgert Brothers. He wondered if they took pictures of St. James. He found a 1937 Burgert picture of a priest and students posed in front of the parish school. Something about it intrigued him. Monroe made a copy and showed the picture to his older brother, Earl.

"You and Helen are in this picture!" Earl told him.

There Monroe was, sitting in the second row, age 4. Helen was 6 at the time. Monroe hadn't even remembered going to the school.

While Monroe documented its past, St. James was continually changing. The church moved from India Street to N Boulevard in 1980. Six years ago, members merged with another church, the House of Prayer. The two congregations formed St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church on Central Avenue.

Monroe started going to St. Chad's Episcopal and decided to continue worshiping there. The mixed congregation is filled with people who are black, white, Latino and from the Philippines.

Monroe spent 63 years at St. James and more than two decades researching it. "It was the only church I knew."

But change can be good, he says. He is happy at St. Chad's. "It's a multiracial congregation," he said. "That's good. Very good."

About the series

The photographs in this series were made in the middle of the last century by the Burgert Brothers commercial photography studio in Tampa, which operated until 1963. The Burgerts were white, but their photographs provide a varied record of African-American life during the days of segregation.

These articles travel with the Burgert photos from the days of Jim Crow until now, looking in on figures in black life and the imprints they made on our community.

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