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Beyond racial boundaries

[Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library]
G.D. Rogers Sr. turned Central Life Insurance Co., which sold policies to black people during the days of segregation, into a million-dollar business after taking over in 1933.

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2003

G.D. Rogers Sr. had businesses, homes and land - along with a heart for his community. He didn't wait for an invitation to get involved in civic affairs.

When G.D. Rogers Sr. died in 1951, the funeral procession traveled nearly 50 miles, a convoy of Fords and Oldsmobiles streaming through Tampa's black neighborhoods and its white country estates, past the farming communities and pastures farther south before reaching a little Methodist church in Bradenton.

Bradenton Mayor Sterling Hall, lawyer and state legislator Thomas T. Cobb, and bank president J.K. Singletary were among the "honorary" pallbearers, and Tampa businessmen Moses White and James T. Hargrett Sr. helped carry the casket. Education officials from Tallahassee and Jacksonville paid their respects, as did the president of a radio station in Atlanta. A Lakeland minister preached the sermon, and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, presided over the funeral. The sanctuary couldn't fit everybody, so some stood outside and listened as her college's choir sang Crossing the Bar.

One newspaper later said that the "black Jesus" must have died.

The day was a grand finale to the life of a man who had walked along railroad tracks from his native Thomaston, Ga., to Central Florida, selling railroad ties to buy food along the way. He wasn't a god, but he was one of few black men of wealth to muscle beyond the racial boundaries of his time. Today, a street in Orlando is named after Rogers, as are a public housing complex and a church in Bradenton and Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa.

His legacy lives today. Rogers fought to establish facilities that would accommodate African-Americans, opening doors that prejudice shut. His descendants fought to keep them open.

Louise Johnson, his oldest child, was the first black person on the Manatee County School Board, and son Ken Rogers was a civil rights lawyer in Manatee. Both are deceased.

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.

Another Rogers daughter and her son, Hallique and James Ransom, led a watchdog effort over Tampa's management and renovations of the golf course. It was the first local place where black people could play golf. The city wanted to hand over control to the YMCA. But the Ransoms garnered support against it, arguing that the land was culturally significant and that in time, privatization could boost fees and jeopardize its availability to the public, the thing Rogers fought for. They won that battle and continue to monitor the city's management of Rogers Park, including extensive renovations to a clubhouse that drew scrutiny. The group likened aspects of the original design to something on a plantation and called it racially insensitive. The fray won the group a seat at the planning table.

"What makes me do the things I do is him," James Ransom said recently.

Rogers' time in Florida began nearly a century ago, in 1905. He may have decided to leave Georgia after a family friend convinced him that better job opportunities in the tailoring business might be here, said Rogers' daughter Eleanor Gittens from her home in New York.

He was about 19 when he left home and people called him G.D., rather than Garfield Devoe. He had no college education or professional resume. He was young and single, one of 16 brothers and sisters, and looking for more than the life he grew up with. As a child, he would get an apple, an orange, three nuts and a piece of candy for Christmas.

As an adult, he became an astute businessman and one of the most prominent figures in Central Florida. Through his business and social contributions and his children, his legacy has survived for generations.

Rogers started out by opening a dry cleaning and tailoring business in Bradenton, crafting suits for $13.50.

In 1922, he helped create the Central Life Insurance Co., an agency that sold policies to black people. Others who joined in the venture included McLeod Bethune and Florida Sentinel Bulletin founder C. Blythe Andrews. Central Life set up its first office on Harrison Street in Tampa with six employees. Before the family bought a house in Tampa, Rogers drove from Bradenton in his Chandler for business meetings.

But he seldom traveled alone. Tampa was more urban with more jobs to offer black people than Bradenton in the 1930s and '40s. With no bus system to speak of, workers gathered in groups along roads and waited for kind neighbors who had trucks to take them to Hillsborough County.

Some showed up at Rogers' door. Eleanor Gittens remembered one woman who worked at the Columbia Restaurant. She showed up early in the morning to catch a ride with him. No problem; Rogers was happy to oblige. People knew he would be. He was a spiritual man. Not long after he got to Bradenton, he helped reorganize Mount Pleasant Methodist Episcopal Church when the founder became ill. That's where he met Minnie Thompson. The couple raised nine children.

In 1933, Rogers took over as president of Central Life, then a small company with about $75,000 in assets. Under him, the agency's worth grew to about $1-million. Rogers was also an investor in a beachfront resort for black people near Daytona Beach. When black teachers threatened a strike, Rogers offered jobs at Central Life to those who participated. He and his wife also operated several funeral homes in the area. And he established the Negro Business League and worked to register black voters.

His business dealings never interfered with life at home. Rogers took his children on business trips, usually packing up two or three kids at a time. They would drive to Chicago, Boston, Detroit.

Hallique Ransom remembered when he took her and her brother Ken to Cleveland. She was 10 or 11, she said, thinking back and smiling. Their car came to a mountain at some point, and she and Ken were scared.

"We thought we had to go straight up." But the car kept winding around and around, on flat ground. "We got to the top of the mountain," she said, "and we got out and looked down."

Sometimes they stopped at friends' homes to stay the night. Black folks weren't welcome in most hotels. And Rogers seemed to know people all over the country, Gittens said. They would just show up with no notice, and that was just fine.

Back in Tampa, the Rogers family did the hosting. Their spacious home with banana, mango and kumquat trees in back, was a known stop for black athletes and entertainers playing or performing in town. Baseball great Hank Aaron and boxer Joe Louis stayed with the Rogers family. A singer named Hallique Brown stayed there, too. That's how Ransom got her name, which is pronounced Hally-QUE.

Meanwhile, the family maintained its Bradenton home and its social ties in Manatee. Rogers and his wife were determined to see black children get the education that they didn't. They sent their children to Fessenden Academy, a private school for black students in Ocala. They also led the effort to renovate a courthouse in Bradenton into a school building, Lincoln Academy. Rogers was the keynote speaker when Gittens graduated from Lincoln in 1936.

The Rogerses were close to McLeod Bethune and were determined to see Bethune-Cookman succeed. G.D. Rogers drove truckloads of cabbages and fish to the school, which struggled in its early years, to feed students and "help out Ms. McLeod," Gittens remembered.

Segregation tried but could not limit Rogers. He was known to mingle with black and white people. J.K. Singletary, the bank executive and honorary pallbearer, was a friend of the family. The Rogerses and Singletarys stopped by each other's homes and did business together, sometimes swapping plots of land that each owned. Nor could race stop Rogers from keeping tabs on city government to make sure black people were well-represented.

In 1943, author Zora Neale Hurston attended a statewide meeting of the Negro Defense Committee. Rogers spoke, and Hurston wrote about it in an article for American Mercury magazine.

"I will answer that question of whether we will be allowed to take part in civic, state and national affairs," she quoted Rogers as saying. "The answer is yes! . . . The truth is that I am not always asked. Certainly in the beginning I was not. As a citizen, I saw no reason why I should wait for an invitation to interest myself in things that concerned me just as much as did the other residents of Tampa. . . . I see no point in hanging back and then complaining that I have been excluded from civic affairs.

"The only citizens who count are those who give time, effort and money to the support and growth of the community. Share the burden where you live."

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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