The consuming cause Of Cuba Libre before 1898 adopted the issue of racial equality. Jose Martí, during his stays in Ybor City, often spoke to the necessity of a united front, indivisible from racial or political differences. After an incident in which Martí narrowly escaped poisoning by Spanish agents, the Apostle of Cuban Liberty stayed at the Ybor City home of Ruperto and Paulina Pedroso, prominent Afro-Cubans. For her aid to the cause, Paulina has been called the “second mother” to the apostle. The symbol of racial unity helped rally the Cuban Revolution. “White and Negro Cubans lived in harmony,” wrote Jose Rivero Muñiz, a contemporary observer, “all being admitted without exception to the various revolutionary clubs, none ever protested.” Muñiz later added, “The relations between Cuban whites and Negroes were most cordial and there was no racial discrimination …. They were mutually respectful.” Jose Ramon Sanféliz, an Afro-Cuban, came to Ybor City in 1890 from Havana. In 1899, he became one of the founders of Club Nacional Cubano, which he remembered “as composed of white and black members – a sort of rice with black beans. There was no distinction of race. When the Círculo Cubano was formed, however, the Negroes were left out.”
The war’s end dashed the revolutionary clubs on the shoals of peace. The period after 1898 brought about a period of reorganization, as Cubans returned to their homes, many to sail back to Ybor City because of the desolation wrought by the war. The decade of the 1890s also resulted in a new era of race relations in the American South, characterized by a proliferation of segregation laws, lynching and terror.
Ybor City’s fluid race relations clearly troubled Anglo Tampa. Afro-Cubans worked alongside white immigrants, a custom carried over in the integrated residential patterns of the enclave. “In Ybor City, you’d live with an Italian on one side, a Spaniard and a Cuban on the other side,” recalled eighty-five-year old Alfonso Diaz, an Afro-Cuban born in Havana. Juan Mallea, an Afro-Cuban born on Twelfth Street and Eighth Avenue in 1918, remembered: “The Caltagirones, the Scagliones, the Martinos – all these people lived across from us. There was no such thing as a white section and a black section. The only time you encountered discrimination was when you left Ybor.” Anglo Tampa, prodded by a legal riding crop from the State’s Capitol of Tallahassee, pressured Ybor City’s white Cubans to disassociate themselves from the Afro-Cubans, resulting in the organization of separate white and black Cuban societies around the turn-of-the-century. “The government [state and local] told them [Cubans] we could not work together, have a society together, and would have to keep the races apart,” exclaimed Mallea. “That was the law of the country. So we blacks decided to build our own club.”
Afro-Cubans organized two separate but overlapping societies at the turn of the century. In 1900, they formed La Sociedad de Libre Pensadores de Martí Maceo (Society of the Free Thinkers of Martí and Maceo), patterned after a similar Cuban organization. The Tampa group’s first president, Bruno Roig, had been a member in the Cuban society. The choice of names revealed the heritage of the revolution,. Marti was the voice of Cuban liberty, while Antonio Maceo, a black general, represented the movement in action. Both men died on the battlefield. In 1904, a faction within the Ybor City club founded a new society, La Unión for the purpose of economic and medical benefits. In 1907, the two organizations merged, forming La Unión Marti-Maceo.
By 1907 officers of the club had purchased a lot on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eleventh Street. Within a year, members embarked on a building campaign. Completed in 1909, the two-story clubhouse is still fondly remembered by veterans of the society. Razed by urban renewal in 1965-the only ethnic clubhouse so taken-the structure housed a theatre for 30, a dance hall and meeting rooms.
La Unión Martí-Maceo gave a degree of stability to Ybor City’s mobile Afro-Cuban community. The club’s theatre and dance hall sponsored virtually every social and cultural event celebrated by the colony’s members. The club began a school, located next to the facility. ” In order to keep our heritage,” explained an elderly member, “we organized, a school at night to teach the Spanish language and Cuban history.” Juan Mallea reminisced that the old timers, while encouraging their generation to learn English, would not allow English spoken in the clubhouse. The club’s baseball team, Los Gigantes Cubanos (The Cuban Giants) competed against the other Latin clubs. “You see,” explained Mallea, “the club was the only offering Black Cubans had.”
Text and photos for this section provided by
The University of South Florida Library
Ybor City and West Tampa Collections
Special Collections Department.
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