TAMPA — In the spring of 1960, African-Americans were allowed to shop at the downtown Woolworth’s department store on Franklin Street. But the lunch counter? In the era of Southern segregation, that was off-limits.
Until Clarence Fort, then head of the local NAACP Youth Council, the Rev. A. Leon Lowry and a group of high school students said no more.
Their Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins were a watershed event in Tampa, and on Wednesday, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Tampa’s newest park will be named the Clarence Fort Freedom Trail in honor of the civil rights leader.
“It’s just awesome,” Fort said Wednesday. “I’m elated, ecstatic, all of the above.”
The park, at 3803 E. Osborne Ave., will open at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 18 with a ribbon-cutting attended by Buckhorn, Fort and East Tampa community leaders. At the site, a half-mile trail encircles an existing retention pond, and there are eight fitness stations along the route in four locations for adults and seniors.
The park has three boardwalk sections that allow visitors to walk around the water’s edge, and more than 110 trees have been planted to provide shade. The trail connects with adjacent sidewalks along Osborne Avenue, North 29th Street, North 30th Street and East Cayuga Street.
“It’s important that we as a community know and understand our history, particularly during the 50-year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act being signed into law,” Buckhorn said in his announcement of the plan.
“I am honored to be able to dedicate this park in name after my friend Clarence Fort, but also to the ideas that he fought for.”
More than 50 years ago, buoyed by a successful demonstration at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., Fort and his peers descended on the Tampa lunch counter in the building next to downtown’s historic Kress building. Employees closed the store, but the demonstrators kept coming back.
Police were ordered to protect the demonstrators, and then-Mayor Julian Lane eventually appointed a bipartisan commission to study segregation in Tampa. It led to historic change.
“Tampa has been one of the more liberal cities starting with the mayor when I led the sit-in,” Fort said. “We didn’t have the problems here that they had in other cities like Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Tallahassee, where the police department took it upon themselves to try and stop the demonstrators.”
Fort would go on to lead the integration of the workforce of Tampa Transit Lines, the city’s bus system, and later became the first African-American long-distance bus driver from Florida with Trailways. He spent 20 years as a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy and founded Tampa’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day parade and the Progress Village Foundation.
At age 76, he is still active, teaching life skills at his church.
“I was just thinking what a difference 50 years makes,” he said. “It’s almost unbelievable to see the progress that was made.
“However, there is still a lot of work to be done. When we look at unemployment, for African-Americans, it’s just too high. We just have to roll up our sleeves and keep going at it.”