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Pains of Progress

The African-American p ioneers of Progress Village take pride in their groundbreaking community , even as an unpleasant present encroaches on the past .

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published December 3, 2006


TAMPA

Emanuel P. Johnson spent Saturdays cultivating his dream on the side of 78th Street, looking out on a cow pasture from his car window, envisioning his first home before it grew from the ground.

It was 1959. The first sit-ins were months away. Black people didn't own many homes. Johnson never dreamed he would, either, until he came upon Progress Village, a place many blacks viewed as a far-away promised land.

He told the builder he wanted a house facing east, so his wife could rise with the sun.

In the small white house with green trim, Johnson and his wife raised a family and watched Progress Village grow. He became town crier, driving his old Ford up and down streets, using a bell and loudspeaker to remind people to attend community meetings to lobby for mail service and streetlights.

He tended the saplings in his yard by lantern light and told his wife that when he got old he'd hang a hammock and watch the world go by.

Now Johnson is 85 and the village's appointed honorary mayor. His children are grown, and his wife is dead. He sees drug dealers polluting the once-spotless streets. He sees renters ruining yards his neighbors once cared for.

The neighborhood, nearly a half-century old, is turning over. Its aging pioneers are disappearing one by one, replaced by renters, young people, investors and the worries that come with them.

There's pride left in Progress Village, but the pioneers see it slipping away. They wonder what will happen to their legacy when they're gone, and whether the place's history will live on.

Starting a community

Progress Village grew just a little more than 11 miles south of downtown Tampa but a world away from the projects, in country night turned pitch black.

A group of influential Tampa men thought they could thaw racial relations if blacks could own some decent homes. They formed a nonprofit in 1958 and called it Progress Village Inc. With private donations and federal backing, they bought 1,226 acres and enlisted a group of home builders.

For less than $60 a month, anyone, but pointedly blacks, could buy one of more than 800 block homes strong enough to withstand hurricanes, in a subdivision insulated enough to withstand the racial turmoil about to roil the South.

Word spread in the black community: 850 to 925 square feet. $200 down. About $50 a month. Forty-year mortgages.

People saw floor plans at the Florida State Fair. They signed up at the Coca-Cola plant.

At first so few moved into Progress Village that Johnson would crawl on his roof to search for new neighbors by looking for new lights. Soon, people packed the place. They organized a Civic Council in a toolshed.

Johnson opened the neighborhood's first business, a small concession stand with a nickel jukebox. In 1964, he helped lay the cornerstone of Harris Temple United Methodist Church.

The Progress Village Pioneer's motto was "Register today . . . vote tomorrow," and 97 percent of registered voters did so in the 1960 general election.

The first settlers survived without telephone service and killed time fishing for catfish, bass or something to do. "Everybody had a baby the first year we got there," recalls Frances Pascoe, the town's longtime barber.

When night fell, lightning bugs lit up the sky. When rain fell, eels slithered into yards. It was a big change for city folk who didn't even know how to grow grass.

"Going to town?" hitchhikers yelled to motorists at the village edge.

"Going to Progress Village?" the call boomeranged back from West Tampa.

It was a precarious journey in the early years, when the Ku Klux Klan welcomed villagers with eggs and burning crosses.

In 1964, Stanley Turner's car caught a flat just a few miles from the village. Five white men approached his car when he walked back to get a jack. Two cornered him.

"Damn n-----," one said. "You think you're so important."

They said they'd just beat him. Then someone pulled a trigger. Turner acted dead and crawled to the road. He spent 14 days in a hospital.

His wife wanted to move back to the city, but he wasn't leaving. What more could whites do than shoot him?

"I bought my home," Turner, 79, explains 42 years later, the bullet still buried inside him.

Listen and learn

Frances Pascoe wouldn't drive back from her father's West Tampa home at night unless he gave her the blue steel service revolver he kept under his pillow.

She was the village barber, who started cutting hair in her back yard without a license before a judge hauled her into court. She became the first black woman to enroll in a Tampa barber college and soon ran the barbershop that still anchors the village's lone strip mall.

She never missed a day of work and cut generations of hair in Progress Village.

She listened to people's problems when they sat in her chair, and she learned all kinds of practical solutions to fix up her own home.

"If a man was a bricklayer," she said, "he talked about it."

She expanded and renovated much of her white stucco house herself, creating the kitchen archway, the dinerlike corner booth and even the Formica table. She sewed the curtains that still seem regal enough to hold back a stage. She made the lamps and textured the walls by mixing a little sand or cement in the paint.

But years of bending over to trim hair gave her three ruptured discs. Her husband, Waldie, died in 2001, and she's had to replace her St. Augustine grass with Bahia because it's easier to care for.

"My husband's dead," said Pascoe, 73. "I can't do the things I used to. Not that I don't want to or don't take pride."

She retired years ago. She can't watch for drug dealers at the strip mall anymore or lock out young men who walk in and out as if they are up to no good, putting them on "probation" until they straighten up.

She wants to go back in time, before investors rode around on Sundays, buying up homes, flipping them for a quick profit and leaving them to people who don't care.

"Why can't we get together and buy these houses?" she wonders. "Get a committee together and buy up these houses and don't let the white people buy them?"

She seems to be doing her part. She owns seven.

A changing face

Progress Village looks much as it always has. Short block, Lego-like houses, some colored aqua blue, some hot pink. The yards seem as if they're all mowed on the same day.

Rattlesnakes still sneak into the community center. Churches - and there are five of them - hold family forums on how to train up a child. A community garden grows greens and okra.

The barbershop is still there, run by another woman.

But every few houses have cardboard for shutters, toilets in front yards or jeans drying on the back of pickups.

Drug dealers linger on the south side of 82nd Avenue, says the community service officer at the sheriff's substation. They give 13-year-olds $100 to run errands, and soon they grow into illegal entrepreneurs who approach cars that drive slowly on the village streets.

These days, older residents call the Sheriff's Office anonymously with complaints. They mail unsigned letters and park away from the village substation before shuffling in. The burglar bars over many windows are meant to keep out thieves, but they can seem like jail bars, keeping those scared in, too.

"I cry when I look around sometimes," Pascoe says, "and see people's houses where their children done let them go."

The proud pioneers are dying and leaving their homes to their kids. Some can't pay taxes and lose them. Some sell. Ninety percent of the village's 2,482 residents were black, according to the 2000 census, and a once segregated subdivision is growing more diverse - a sign of progress to some, worrisome to others.

Government-subsidized rentals in the area jumped 46 percent in seven years. Home prices have nearly doubled since 2001, and the county has approved nearly 4,000 new homes around the village.

Signs are tacked to light poles - "We Buy Houses!!! Cash* Terms* Foreclosure. Any Condition" - and everyone's getting calls and letters.

"Oh Lord, at least three or four a day," says Julia Timmons, 69.

"Ooh yes, yes, yes," says Ernestine Turner, 76.

The mailers come from real estate agents and flippers. But ask to see one, and not one can be found. The letters are torn and trashed as soon as they arrive.

"Everybody around here done paid for their house," says Henzie Haywood, 65. "Why would they sell and pay rent again? Think I want to go through that again? Hell no."

As Progress Village approaches its 50th anniversary in 2010, the older residents long to turn back the clock. Hundreds of past and present residents attended a reunion this summer, and more are planned. The Progress Village Civic Council president hopes the reunions will spur political momentum to get the village some sort of historical designation.

"If we can make this a historical community," president Hilrie Kemp says, "it will not be gobbled up or eaten."

Others, like Lucille Franklin, 72, Progress Village Elementary School's first teacher, have a more immediate solution to straightening things out. She just wants to pull up the sagging pants on every young man she sees.

Old meets young

Cory Yancy, 32, knows his do rag, dragon tattoo and baggy sweats make older folks frown.

"Never judge a book by the cover," he says.

He shares the beliefs of some village pioneers. He finds neighborhood kids disrespectful. They don't move out of the streets for cars. They use strong language in front of their elders.

There's a communication breakdown between young and old, he says.

"Older people think they know everything," he says. "And younger people feel they know everything. So there's going to be a clash, of course."

But he has listened.

"First black subdivision," he recites. "Klan used to come across the railroad tracks."

He says an old man came down the street and taught him this. His name is Emanuel P. Johnson.

More work to do

Johnson has been retired since 1985, after 35 years working at the Devoe Paint Co., where his gray eyes could match up customers' paint needs with precision before machines took over.

He calls his white hair a crown. It's the only hint of his age. He has a girlfriend across the street.

He walks around the neighborhood in a slightly bowlegged gait, serving up succinct phrases like "the gate of memory never closes."

He sounds like a street corner prophet. He talks so much about Progress Village's past and his hand in it that he acknowledges some call him a braggart.

In his house, a plaque calls him Progress Village's appointed mayor and historian.

He takes the role seriously, calling himself history's "living witness" and his house a museum. He keeps everything that holds memories. His family's names are all inscribed in the concrete by the carport. An old photo of his son still carries a third-place ribbon. He just wishes he'd kept that lantern he used to tend the saplings that sprouted in the bare yard 45 years ago.

He doesn't have time for a hammock. He doesn't play golf or fish. He tries to instill pride in the neighborhood by telling people what the pioneers went through. Maybe it'll make a difference, he thinks.

"It makes me upset, but you can't get upset. . . . These kids, you can't make them learn what you know unless you tell them about it," he says. "I can tell the story, that's all I can do."

So the town crier walks up and down the streets, telling his story, to whoever will hear it, for as long as he can.

"That's going to be somebody else's job when I'm dead and gone," he says.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.