As the Cuban War of Independence ensued in 1895, the atmosphere in Ybor City rang with shouts of “Cuba Libre” and hope for a different future. Black and white Cubans abandoned their preconceptions about race and became united under the national cause to finally see their beloved Cuba be free of Spanish rule.
When the war was over in 1898, so too was the fraternity of white and black Cubans in Tampa. Jim Crow racial segregation laws proved stronger than the ethnic bonds between them. Afro-Cubans were expelled from the Cuban National Club, a Cuban organization founded in 1899 in Ybor City.
Withdrawing from the Cuban Club, Afro-Cubans found themselves without a voice. It was not long, however, before they found it again. In 1901, Afro-Cubans founded a recreational club, Los Libres Pensadores de Marti y Maceo. The establishment of the club coincided with another Afro-Cuban organization, La Union, a welfare society founded in 1904. The two institutions soon realized that they were better off together.
The merger of La Union and Los Libres Pensadores de Marti y Maceo occurred in 1905, forming the present-day La Union Martí-Maceo. The club was named after the national liberation heroes, José Martí and Antonio Maceo, as a tribute to their effort in the realization of Cuba Libre. It was in the home of Ruperto and Paulina Pedroso, prominent Afro-Cubans during the revolutionary struggle and close friends of José Martí, that the society was first formed.
As a mutual aid society, the institution was a pillar of the social and educational advancement of its members, as well as their care in illness. After raising enough funds, the organization erected its first clubhouse in 1908, a two-story brick building, which included a social hall, an auditorium, and club rooms. It was located on Sixth Avenue and Eleventh Street.
For years the society held and sponsored activities for its members, like concerts and games, and even music lessons for children. The club’s social hall was always open to others, a reflection of the welcoming and egalitarian character of the Afro-Cuban community. It also provided complete medical care and financial compensation during illness to its members in exchange for a small weekly fee of 50 cents.
The society gave Afro-Cubans the voice which they had lost as a minority within a minority. It created a sense of belonging in an era of dissociation. According to anthropologist Susan Greenbaum, the club “provided the physical structure within which identity emerged and agency was fashioned.”
In 1965, the city of Tampa demolished the Martí-Maceo clubhouse as part of an urban renewal initiative. Mid-century local, state, and federal highway construction projects hit Ybor City particularly hard. The society relocated its headquarters to the current location on Seventh Avenue. Today, the club’s legacy moves on. Although its purpose is solely recreational and its membership has dwindled to around 100 members, its role in maintaining Afro-Cuban ethnicity is indispensable.