Kate Jackson: A woman well ahead of her time

Jackson is pictured, center, with two friends, sisters Frances and Lizzie Askew, in this early 1880s cabinet card photograph, when bicycles were a luxury and a fad. Note the oil lamp headlights. (Courtesy of the Tampa Bay History Center Collection, Gift of Lula Joughin Dovi)
Jackson is pictured, center, with two friends, sisters Frances and Lizzie Askew, in this early 1880s cabinet card photograph, when bicycles were a luxury and a fad. Note the oil lamp headlights. (Courtesy of the Tampa Bay History Center Collection, Gift of Lula Joughin Dovi)

There is a well-worn cliche about being born at the wrong time: either too early or too late.

While cliche, it is absolutely true of Tampa’s Kate Jackson. Born in 1857 to pioneering parents, Kate was a bold leader and entrepreneur. Her gender kept her from attaining official leadership roles, unlike two of her three brothers; one served as Tampa’s mayor for two different terms, and another became a doctor and medical school professor in New York City (the third had a severe mental illness).

Kate’s parents, John and Ellen Jackson, each immigrated to the United States from Ireland in the early 1840s. John worked his way from New York to Tampa via New Orleans and St. Augustine. It was in St. Augustine that John met and married Ellen Maher. They settled in Tampa, where John worked as a surveyor and operated a general store.
He completed three surveys of Tampa (1847, 1853, and 1886), and his 1853 survey is still used as the legal reference for land in what is now downtown Tampa.

The Jacksons were devout Catholics, which was uncommon but not rare in early Tampa. They funded the first Catholic parish, St. Louis Parish, in the 1880s (the precursor to Sacred Heart), and they sent their daughter, Kate, to Key West to one of the only Catholic girls schools in the state.

Kate Jackson enjoyed her time so much at the Mary Immaculate Convent that she worked with the Sisters of the Holy Names in Key West to start a school in Tampa. Two French nuns arrived in Tampa in 1881 to establish what is now the Academy of the Holy Names.

Her devotion to the city of Tampa was almost as great as it was to the Catholic Church. While her brother Thomas was able to attain a position of political leadership, serving as Mayor of Tampa (1877-1878; 1889-1890) and as a member of City Council (1875; 1881-1884), plus civic leadership as a founding member of the Board of Trade, Kate’s work was confined by the conventions of the time to what was called “Women’s Work.” The restrictions of the era did not preclude her from being a major shareholder, along with her brothers, in Citizens Bank (one of Tampa’s three major banks at the time).

In addition to her efforts in bringing the Academy to Tampa, that Women’s Work included the founding of the Tampa Civic Association and pushing Tampa’s male politicians to accept funding for a public library from the Carnegie Foundation. She also spoke passionately about the need to clean up the city (including enforcing the city’s no spitting ordinance) and, perhaps most importantly, creating and maintaining public parks and recreation areas for the city’s children.

It is in this last area that Kate Jackson’s legacy is most obvious to us today. The Kate Jackson Recreation Center in Hyde Park is not only named in her honor but is on what was once her property. The center even has the same address as her home – 821 South Rome Avenue.

The path to becoming a city park and community center was not a straight one. Upon Kate Jackson’s death, the property was turned over to the Catholic Church, who a month later converted the home to a kindergarten for Sacred Heart Academy. During World War II, the National Catholic Community Service used the home USO as a residence club for the wives and families of servicemen who were training in Tampa.
As many as 30 women could be accommodated, dormitory-style, in the spacious home. During Thanksgiving in 1944, 60 servicemen and their families were hosted there by the USO club.

The City of Tampa acquired the home in 1944 but use by the USO did not end until after the close of World War II. In March 1946, city workers began the task of remaking the home into a community center.

By 1947, though, Jackson’s name was no longer associated with the property and instead, it became known as the Anderson Community Center.

The Jackson home, built in 1911, was falling into disrepair by the late 1960s and by 1972 was being called “dilapidated,” a “fire trap,” and a “monstrosity.” The once-grand home could not survive the many years of deferred maintenance and neglect at the hands of a cash-strapped city. The home finally met its end in 1973.

The demolition of Kate Jackson’s home actually served as a new beginning for her being recognized for her contributions toward recreation and community spirit. The property was renamed in her honor in 1975 and a new community center soon opened onsite.

The new center was used daily, and as the Hyde Park neighborhood experienced a renaissance, the need for a bigger and better Kate Jackson Community Center grew as well. By the late 1990s, they city began to make improvements to the park, including the installation of the now-iconic lions fountain at Rome and Morrison. New wrought-iron fencing and sidewalks were installed, and three years later ground was broken on a new, 8,000-square-foot community center. The new center was dedicated on May 19, 2003 by outgoing Tampa mayor Dick Greco.

While the community center is Kate Jackson’s most visible lasting legacy, her immediate legacy upon her death may better sum up how she lived her life. Her final will outlined the distribution of her substantial wealth.

Though several different organizations within the Catholic Church (totaling $33,000) were the largest beneficiaries, a variety of other organizations and individuals received bequests as well. Presuming, according to Jackson biographer Doris Weatherford, that her male relatives were already well-positioned to be successful, she recognized several nieces and grand-nieces in her will (though she did give money to a favored nephew, John A. Jackson, Jr.). Perhaps more interesting, she also gave $5,000 to Christmas Rahming and $2,000 to Felix Bain.

Rahming and Bain were two African-American employees of Jackson’s (described as “my faithful servants for many years” in her will). Both Rahming, who was 70, and Bain (47) lived in individual homes on her property. Given the racial attitudes of the time (which are reflected in her description of Rahming and Bain), Jackson’s gifts of what in today’s dollars would amount to around $40,000 for Bain and nearly $100,000 for Rahming were extraordinarily rare, showing the true character of the woman – a character ahead of its time.