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Henderson: Turbulent civil rights past led to better Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: March 28, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Even as Tampa tries to move forward from the Great Recession, a glance at the past can remind us all that while real progress is never easy, it can happen.

Chances are, most people living here today would have no recollection of a city-changing event that happened more than 53 years ago. That's when Clarence Fort joined the late Rev. Leon Lowry and other young African-Americans in the simple act of trying to get something to eat at the old F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Tampa.

Segregation was the accepted rule throughout the South in 1960, and the manager closed the restaurant that day rather than break the all-white tradition.

It didn't matter. A chain of events had begun that led to desegregation in Tampa.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn reminded everyone of that Tuesday during his state of the city address at the historic downtown Kress Building – next door to the building that used to be the Woolworth store.

He introduced Fort to a standing ovation from the large crowd attending the speech and praised him as a pioneer in Tampa's civil rights movement.

“I thought it was the perfect chance to talk about him,” Buckhorn said. “My generation's responsibility is to build on their legacy. (Fort) is very quiet, and he was probably embarrassed when I mentioned him because he isn't asking for recognition. But he is committed and he truly believes he had to stand up for what he thought was right.”

Fort said Tampa was generally more progressive than most southern cities, but it was still a major risk for a young African-American male to challenge the white establishment.

“Some of my own friends called me and told me I was absolutely out of my mind, to try something like that,” he said.

“But I was a young barber at the time, so they couldn't fire me because I was self-employed. We actually had parents that took their kids off the (barber) stools so they wouldn't lose their jobs. It was a terrible situation, but it paid off.”

The date was Feb. 29, 1960 – a Monday, about six weeks before Easter. Racial tensions were bubbling in the South, with protests that occasionally ended in violence. Woolworth, a major retailer in those days, had been a target in many southern cities because of its high profile.

“Woolworth's was the place everyone shopped. There were no malls, there were no big stores, there was no Walmart,” Fort said.

Fort and his friends had been working on their plan for about three weeks, but kept it mostly secret. There was a lot of fear in the community.

“I went out to high schools and recruited the student council leaders of both of the African-American high schools. I had to sneak on campus because even the principal didn't know I was there. He would have lost his job,” Fort said.

The challenge by Fort and his friends led then-Mayor Julian Lane to appoint a bipartisan commission to study the problem. It led to historic change for this city, and did so generally without violence.

We are far from completely evolved, of course. The city has had problems with racism over the years. Crime and high unemployment remain big issues among African-Americans here.

Even that is a matter of perspective, though. Fort is 75 now, retired after a career with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. When he speaks, it is with an authority that crosses generations.

“When I talked to my own kids a few years back, they couldn't believe we couldn't drink at water fountains that said 'white,'” Fort said. “A lot of young people I talk to or mentor in the area say, 'You guys were really crazy to let them pull that stuff.' But it was a sign of the times. Segregation was the norm and we just didn't know any better.”

Even with that knowledge we should never forget events of the past. These things shape a city and define who we are. And as people were reminded during the mayor's speech, what happened years ago at a now-abandoned lunch counter helped make this a better place today.


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