Rogers Park, the legacy of an African-American powerhouse - FOX 13 News

Rogers Park, the legacy of an African-American powerhouse

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Inside the clubhouse at Rogers Park Golf Course, you'll find old-timers like 78-year-old Thomas Gillard. He remembers the years before racial integration.

"This was the only place we could come because the other places were for white only," he said.

Rogers Park grew out of America's segregated past. It is the legacy of Garfield Devoe Rogers. He donated the land back in the 1930s on which the course and clubhouse stand today.

"My grandfather was a true industrialist," says James Ransom, the grandson of G.D. Rogers. "He was a landowner, developer, businessman, and a philanthropist. He thought that African American people should be able to enjoy leisure time at beaches and lakes. So he bought property at Bonnett Lake and he bought cabins and horses, and boats, and people could go skiing."

Born in rural Fitzgerald, Georgia in 1905, G.D. Rogers left home for Tampa at age 19.

"He walked here from Georgia, along the railroad, selling railroad ties, and he learned a lot about people," Ransom says.

The business-savvy Rogers became a kind of jack-of-all-trades.

"He did things like become a tailor, a rancher, farmer, a mortician," Ransom said.

Rogers' wealth grew after he founded the Central Life Insurance Company. It became the largest black-owned insurance firm in the southeast.

"He took it from a $75,000 company to a million dollars during the stint he was president," Ransom said.

It was a crown jewel in the thriving black business community along Tampa's Central Avenue, and it led to other investments: among them, five funeral homes, beachfront property in Daytona, and a school in Manatee County.

"In Bradenton, there was a courthouse that was going to be demolished. He bought the courthouse and had it moved to Palmetto, Florida and it became the first black high school in Manatee County," Ransom said.

Rogers supported Mary McCloud Bethune when she started Bethune Cookman College by sending food and supplies.

He stood beside teachers in their fight for equal pay, promising them jobs if they lost theirs.

G.D. Rogers was the go-to-guy if you needed a helping hand. His grandson says he would take people from Bradenton to Tampa to look for work.

"We're going to talk about how we can help you get a job and take care of your family. He was that kind of a person."

At his palatial Tampa home, Rogers also entertained celebrities. Ransom says it wasn't unusual to see people like baseball great Hank Aaron, boxer Joe Louis, or big band leader Count Basie.

There is now a bust of G.D. Rogers along Tampa's Riverwalk. It marks his place amount other legendary figures in history.

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