Bridging the past to keep alive the memory of a former slave and Tampa landowner

Gloria Jean Royster is a children’s book writer and creator of postcards featuring historical tidbits, many from Tampa’s Black community. But she’s been known for the past few years as the champion of former slave and land-owner Fortune Taylor, who died in 1906. Known in her later years as Madame Fortune Taylor, she owned nearly 33 acres along the Hillsborough River in what now is downtown Tampa.

Royster pushed to have the bridge over the river at Laurel Street named the Madame Fortune Taylor Bridge. It had been informally called the Fortune Street Bridge for decades because Fortune Street used to be where Laurel Street is now. Royster found out about Fortune Taylor soon after she moved to Tampa from Atlanta in 2013. She read that Fortune Street — a street two blocks from where she lives — was named for a Black woman.

She thought: “How cool is that? You don’t see that everywhere.”

Royster, 65, worked with others to have a historical marker erected, giving a bit of the history of the namesake of the Madame Fortune Taylor Bridge. She tells the story during downtown walking tours for the Tampa Bay History Center. She spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the Tampa pioneer.

How long had the bridge been called Fortune Street Bridge?

They completed the bridge in 1893, so from 1893 to (the late 1960s), Fortune Street connected to the bridge. The bridge was not named for her. The street was. So it became the Fortune Street Bridge for all those years. Plus, the east side connected to what was her land. (The roads were altered in the late 1960s to make way for the interstate interchange.)

Somehow Fortune Street went south, where the Barrymore (Hotel) is, where the Straz (Center for the Performing Arts) is, where the Tampa Bay Times is, that’s Fortune Street. Then they brought Constant Street and connected it to the bridge. At first it was the Constant Street Bridge. It’s short for a pioneer of Tampa named Constance Bourquardez. Then it became the Laurel Street Bridge.

What I say on my walking tour that I do for her for the Tampa Bay History Center, I say, “When you disconnected the street, you disconnected the history.’’

Who was Fortune Taylor?

What we have learned so far — because there are people who have researched it for me and I’ve done a little more, and what we’ve learned so far, the census indicates she was born in South Carolina. We were able to come across a record for her in South Carolina when she was enslaved there. She was 22 at the time. That’s the earliest we’ve been able to find her. The census says her parents were from Virginia, but there are no names listed. And there’s no birth day for Fortune Taylor, only a birth year, 1825.

Enslaved with her was a man named Ben, who later becomes her husband. Upon the planter’s death, they were given to the children in the estate. Two of those children bring Ben and Fortune into Hernando County. So at some point in 1863 the sibling that owned Fortune died. So what we’re thinking, based on what we know so far, is that her widower, the husband, brings them into Tampa. We don’t know why.

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In May of 1864 is when the Union troops came in, the Navy and the Army, and liberated the African-Americans in Tampa. And historians believe that the Taylors were here. They were living as free people. Two years later on the same day that the troops came in, in 1866, they got married. They were the second African-American couple to marry in Hillsborough County.

How did they acquire the property?

Two years after that, in 1868, Benjamin Taylor received a claim from Hillsborough County for approximately 33 acres of land (abutting) what is now the Tampa Riverwalk. He was able to claim it (under the Homestead Act of 1862). It went from the north side of Harrison (Street) just into Tampa Heights.

Right after he received the claim, he planted 70 orange trees, according to (historian) Cantor Brown Jr., and guava, peach, and plum trees. And built a house. The research said that they had a vegetable stand and they did odd jobs before the land claim. There’s also the story that she sold baked goods. I haven’t been able to find that. The Straz did some research and they found that, and I have seen it as well, they found that she bought pies from the church right across the street here to be supportive of the fund-raising, St. Paul A.M.E. (Church). A year after Benjamin claimed the land, in 1869, he died at age 45. For a period of six years we don’t know what happened in Fortune Taylor’s life.

We pick back up on her in 1875 because someone comes calling. And he is the former 10th mayor of Tampa, and his name is Edward A. Clarke. He’s no longer mayor, he’s a wealthy real estate developer and a merchant, and he wants to build a city. So he approaches Madame Fortune Taylor.

In June she paid the balance of $6 for a total of $12 for those 33 acres. She paid that money to the land office in Tallahassee, and she becomes the legal land owner in July, 1875. On that same day, former Mayor Clarke buys 28 acres of her land (for $252).

How did the street come to be named Fortune Street?

I think Clarke did it, but then I have this overarching feeling that she may have asked for it as part of the deal.

Because when she was enslaved in South Carolina, that is what the planters and people around her did. If you look at the map of the area that she came from you see the the roads, the bridges, everything is named for people that lived there.

So then when she comes into Brooksville, the plantation that she’s on in Brooksville is run by a widow, from that same South Carolina planter family and that widow gets a street named for her (Howell Avenue). So, you know, she’s looking at all of this and saying, “Hey, I’m a landowner now.” This is my theory, that she negotiated that.

Before it was Fortune Street, according to Canter Brown, it was Wall Street, named for Judge Perry Green Wall from Brooksville. And Judge Wall was Clarke’s father-in-law. So, again, this is my theory: Who else can take their father-in-law’s name off of a street?

For more information about the walking tour, go to

For more information on Royster, go to

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