On April 12, 1886, when the first Cuban cigar-workers arrived in Tampa from Key West, Afro-Cubans were part of the contingent, but soon would discover they would not fully be members of the community. About 15% of the Cubanpopulation of Ybor City and West Tampa would be black.

While emancipation for Cubaís one-third Afro-Cuban population was not achieved until 1886, some twenty years after slavery ended in the United States, free Afro-Cubans existed under Spanish rule in a more subdued and flexible racism than in Florida. In Florida, Afro-Cubans soon found themselvessegregated from white Cubans by statute, and separatedfrom††† Afro-Americans bylanguage, culture, and religion.

Maceo, famous black Cuban General.

Race relations in Cuba were a strange mix. The Spanish brutally crushed slave revolts and executed noted free blacks for helping insurrections. When Cubans began a revolt against Spain in 1868, free blacks and slaves strongly supported the revolt. Spain anti-revolutionary strategy was often contradictory but effective: they granted freedom to slaves who remained Loyalists and scared white Cubans that black revolutionary generals like GENERAL ANTONIO MACEO was plotting to drive all whites out of Cuba.


Cigar workers, both black and white, included many revolutionary leaders. The establishment of a cigar industry in Key West in 1869 was a direct result of the impact of the Ten Years War (Second Cuban War for Independence) disrupting the cigar trade. As a small island with little skilled labor, cigar owners found themselves limited in Key West.

Founders of Maceo-Marti in Ybor City

Many cigar owners, such as Vicente Martinez Ybor were sympathetic to Cuban independence and fair treatment of Afro-Cubans. He was less supportive of trade unionism. Still, Ybor allowed Cubans to collect funds for their revolutionary cause in his facilities.


Racial divisions and lack of unified leadership undermined these efforts until the rise of prominence of the great Cuban writer JOSE MARTI, who first visited Ybor City in 1891. A good friend of Afro-Cuban leader Rafael Serra, founder of New Yorkís La Liga, Marti sought the support of Tampa Afro-Cubans RUPERTO and PAULINA PEDROSO and Cornelio Brito.


After an attempted assassination, Marti always stayed at the Pedroso Boarding House at 12th Street and 8th Avenue, with Ruperto sleeping in the hallway at Martiís room. Marti often walked the streets of Ybor City with Paulina in public recognition of his deep respect for her.

Paulina Pedrosa, famous Afro-Cuban leader in Ybor CityWhile many Afro-Cubans returned to Cuba when independence was gained in 1899, others stayed or returned to Ybor City, where the economy was better.There were many Cuban political groups prior to 1900, but the first mutual aid societies to provide medical and economic assistance began after 1900.


On October 26, 1900, the MARTI-MACEO SOCIETY was started in the home of Ruperto and Paulina Pedroso. At first educational and recreational were started, with medical assistance added in 1904 when the Marti-Maceo merged with LA UNION, a West Tampa group started by Juan Franco. In 1908 LA UNION MARTI-MACEO became incorporated and started a brick clubhouse at 11th Street and 6th Avenue.

1908 clubhouse of Club Marti-Maceo in Ybor City (Tampa)

With 300 members, La Union Marti-Maceo could provide social and educational services unavailable in segregated Tampa. For 60 cents in weekly dues, a member could get $1.50 in daily medical benefits at the Gonzalez Clinic or other hospitals.


Ninety percent of the male Afro-Cubans worked as cigar-workers, while another 15% of the female Afro-Cuban population worked in cigar factories, most as tobacco leaf strippers. The cigar industry was expanding and mobile, with salaries based upon skill, not race. Yet, even the Cigarmakers International Union was openly segregationist and racist in policies favoring white workers. Black cigar-workers had little choice but to remain in the union so the Club was their refuge from multiple discriminations.

Lara Barbershop in Ybor City

The Club remained financially stable until the 1930�s from sales from the cantina and food, and by renting their dancehall to other groups. At least 25% of all Afro-Cuban households had single male relatives as tenants and many of these mobile men made the Club a restaurant and social center.


West Tampaís Afro-Cubans were called �caymanos (alligators) for the kids sold baby alligators to tourists to raise funds. The Ybor City members were often called cangrejos (crabs), for some worked the crabbing industry. They gathered together for most activities, for while Afro-Cubans were sensitive to the plight of African-Americans, there was little interaction except in parochial schools like ST. BENEDICT�S or ST. PETER CLEAVER.

Frank Lopez House in Ybor City.

The quick decline of the cigar industry in the Great Depression which followed the damaging destruction of the union in the strike of 1931, was particularly damaging to second generation Afro-Cubans. Job opportunities seemed better in Cuba or the North. Fifty per cent of the Afro-Cuban community left Tampa between 1930 and 1940, leaving older members trying desperately to maintain the Club and institutions.


The New Deal helped Afro-Cubans and African Americans know each other better. The Club was used as a federally-sponsored music academy. The dancehall hosted concerts by Fats Domino, B. B. King, and Cab Callaway.

Rodriguez for Office poster.

In New York, many Afro-Cuban groups joined black Puerto Rican organizations. After World War II, Puerto Rican Juan Casellas was a President of La Union Marti-Maceo. In 1950 Jose and Sylvia Grinan set up the PAN AMERICAN CLUB, open to Hispanic and non-Hispanic blacks.

The Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950�s had the full support of Afro-Cubans, with lawyer Francisco Rodriguez, a leader with the NAACP, and educator Aurelio Fernandez, as key organizers. The start of integration in 1962-1964 began at the Ybor City School.

In the 1960�s urban renewal resulted in the destruction of the deteriorating Union Marti-Maceo clubhouse. A smaller structure was built at 1226 7th Avenue, but the continued decline of dues-paying membership and the fact that young Afro-Cubans belonged to other institutions of a more integrated Tampa.