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Stop 75: The 1949 Mickens-Harper Subdivision

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The 1949 Mickens-Harper Subdivision is located in the eastern part of Dade City and is bounded by the CSX railroad lines on the west and south, the Dade City Cemetery, and Moore-Mickens Education Center on the north with unincorporated Pasco County to the east (per Dade City’s Neighborhood Plan):

 

A MILESTONE IN OUR DADE CITY HISTORY

 

     The Mickens-Harper Subdivision evolved in the late 1940s. Historians theorize a movement burgeoned from Black veterans returning from World War II, provided impetus.

 

     “The men put aside divisive issues such as class, professions, and denominations to build a better community for their families Years later, their legacy speaks for itself,” said Imani D. Asukile, African American Heritage Society of East Pasco County, Inc.

 

     Difficult times for sure, with legalized segregation and Jim Crow, the venture was unique in Florida. Historian/Lawyer Bill Dayton wrote, “The venture sprang from a partnership between educator, Odell Kingston Mickens and James Row Harper, a prominent Black Mortician. As far as I know, it was one of the first subdivisions in the state of Florida developed for Blacks by Blacks.”

 

     The subdivision offered a higher standard of living than was otherwise available to Black residents. The community became a lasting testament to the men who built it. They were pastors, deacons, businessmen, educators, and common workers…men of character who built a community of integrity”, added Asukile.

 

   Community leaders included; Reverend Ennis Hansberry, Lee Coleman, Robert Standifer, Otis Jones, Charles Groom, Love Thompson, Eddie Starkes, Reverend Louis Praylor, the Reverend J.L. Cooper, Harmin Goodwin, James N. Taylor, James Irvin, Henry Thomas, Clifton Hall, Sr., Mickens, and Harper. The group was responsible for Naomi Jones Park and the Moore Academy moving to Mickens-Harper Subdivision. Moore Academy evolved to Moore Elementary School and Mickens High School. 

 

     Taylor, the agriculture teacher at Moore Academy, built the first home, followed by Goodwin, also an educator. Over time, many of the community leaders from the committee constructed homes in the subdivision.

 

     The official dedication of the subdivision occurred on May 10, 1949.

 

     Some of the names are enshrined on public facilities in Pasco County. A school and civic center are named in honor of James Irvin (STOP 73) for his civic service. Odell Mickens name is on the school (STOP 66) where he was principal for 40 years, now the Moore-Mickens Educational Center. In the case of Harper (1886 to 1960) his role as an African American undertaker revealed the depth of segregation that permeated even the burial rituals. (City Commissioner Scott Black who researched many of the area cemeteries said, “Sadly the old ‘Dade City Banners’ only in the rarest of occasions would mention a passing in the black community.”

 

STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE

 

     The need for the subdivision and its impact were felt in Dade City. Asukile wrote about Charles Groom, the last remaining member of the leaders who had the vision for the Mickens-Harper Subdivision in 2006. A retired naval officer Groom came to Dade City in 1946. “I was one of the youngest members of the group. They nurtured me, especially James Irvin. Called back to active duty in 1950 during the Korean War.”  Asukile wrote that Groom “epitomized the spirit of those men from Dade City and their generation. They were taught that you always had to be twice as good as your white competitor and not let anything get in the way of your goals.”

 

   To fully understand the passion, it is necessary to look at the housing situation prior to the era of the subdivision and beyond. Neil King Jr. of the Tribune wrote in 1991, about the shotgun houses that once covered much of downtown Dade City and gave shelter to nearly all of the city’s Black residents that were vanishing board by board and plank by plank. “No preservation society scrambled to save the few houses that remain, though they are an important part of Dade City’s history.” 

 

     William Stanley Cochrane owned more than fifty shotgun houses north of the center of Dade City. Situated upon concrete blocks or bricks, their clapboard walls usually contained three rooms, tucked along a central hallway. A shotgun blast could rip through the front door and the trajectory was straight through the house, not hitting a thing…the origin of the name, shotgun house.

 

    The shotgun house boom came in the 1920’s when citrus, tobacco and lumber/timber were king said Bill Dayton.  By the time Dayton returned home from college in the 1950s’ he observed that many of the houses had begun to disappear. 

 

     The very few remaining shot gun houses that are now over one-hundred years old were also known as quarter houses. Their tenants paying rent of around two dollars a week were men and women who worked in the groves and timber/lumber industries or worked as maids in the big houses uptown. 

 

     The houses were often arranged in clusters and named for the landlord. Across the railroad tracks northeast of town stood the Larkin Quarter, named after a family that owned large tracts of ranch land, north and east of the city. In the area of North 7th Street where The Block now stands (Stop 20) previously the Highlands Motor Company and the Hardware Stores discussed in Stop 22 existed, there were dozens of clusters. An additional configuration of shot gun houses were known as the Cochrane Quarters near the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center (Stop 13) that were owned for a period of time by Freeman Polk. 

 

     Wesley Ward, the former Dade City Building inspector said many were so dilapidated, there’s no sense in fixing them up. The land was zoned part of the central business district since 1975. 

 

     Dade City native, Andrew Lewis also remembered when the shot gun houses covered vast areas of the city north of Meridian Avenue. They were everywhere row after row of them stuck one beside the other, said the former school teacher who headed the Pasco Housing Commission. And in those days, none of them had plumbing or electricity. 

 

     To Lewis, the houses revealed a part of Dade City that changed little over time. If you were not rich, you worked for and paid your rent to those who were. What certainly changed—in Lewis’s eyes were the streets and neighborhoods where he grew up. Where the baseball fields once stood north of the judicial center, Lewis recalled a lake surrounded by quarter houses, known to everyone as Catfish Quarters. It got its name after the fishing hole, where you could catch bass and catfish as big as a large baby.

 

OBSTACLES/BUMPS IN THE ROAD (no pun intended)

 

     Pride was palpable for the innovative subdivision. Black professionals constructed over fifty homes and city renamed Main Street as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Times were changing!

 

    In 1952 however, the city decided to construct a sewage treatment plant, bordering on the east of the subdivision. Needless to say, it was a difficult time for race relations. Over time, the residents learned to tolerate the plant. Lavater Holt, a former juvenile corrections officer and later teacher at Pasco Middle School and a life time resident of Mickens-Harper, explained, “After all, it wasn’t until 1975 that Dade City repealed its segregated meeting laws.”. As Dade city grew, the sewage plant did too. Alarms sounded at night, waking neighborhood children and 18-wheel trucks sped down small residential streets.

 

     Disputes over paving of streets also resulted in a federal ruling from Judge Ben Krentzman that Blacks in Dade City had been treated unfairly by the local government. Blasting the officials, the judge cited an array of issues of prejudicial treatment including for example, the 1914 city ordinance that outlawed “intermingling of whites and blacks, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1975.” The judge ordered Dade City officials to correct at least one of those inequities by paving some of the streets in the African-American sections of town.  After a series of appeals, paving came five years later.

 

A strain for several decades, the residents were even more stunned when they learned in the 1980s that the city planned to replace their neighborhood baseball fields with a two-million-gallon storage tank for reclaimed water. A Dade City Alliance was initiated under the aegis of the Dade City Chamber of Commerce.

 

   Expansion plans in 2011, further stirred memories of racially-charged incidents of the past. It was the final straw so to speak. After debate and litigation, then Dade City Mayor Camile Hernandez said the sewage plant should never have been built in the neighborhood in the first place. We all, at the end of the day look at that water treatment plant and understand the significance of what it has done to that community in 2022, said Hernandez.

 

THE ENRICHMENT TO OUR COMMUNITY OVER TIME

 

    The men who built the Mickens-Harper Subdivision transformed lives and solidified the first Black middle-class community. But now, the community is changing, Members of many ethnic groups are surfacing as residents. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founding generation are moving to more urban communities such as Wesley Chapel, and that’s if they stay in Pasco County.

 

Nevertheless, let’s give the men three cheers and a dozen high fives for their contribution to our community because they represent the best of the “Greatest Generation, wrote Asukile.

 

     Cochrane Street Christmas is an event that illustrates comradery and community caring. Levater Holt initiated the event several years ago when Leticia McNabb started a Christmas parade through the Larkin Sunnybrook addition. Holt provided gift baskets and funding and residents began decorating their homes, baking goodies and serving hot chocolate to visitors. Homes are judged on their colorful decorations for the best exhibit, and visitors travel from Tampa and Bushnell to participate. 

 

    Perhaps the future will bring more understanding and acceptance of all cultures, as many lessons have been learned from experience in Dade City.

 

    By all means, take a drive by Mickens-Harper Subdivision, a place of over 74 years of history!!!

 

For additional insight into this important time in Dade City consider viewing: 

 

Ammons v. DADE CITY, FLA., 594 F. Supp. 1274 (M.D. Fla. 1984) :: Justia

 

One of our distinguished contributors to the Dade City Historical tour, the honorable Judge Lynn Tepper suggested,I think it’s important for longtime & new Dade City residents & City Commissioners to know the history, as found by a renowned Federal District Judge & upheld on Appeal.”

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