Photo: Alex McKnightThe F.W. Woolworth's building where Clarence Fort led a series of sit-ins nearly 55 years ago is still in downtown Tampa.
Counter insurgency: Fighting Jim Crow
Fifty-five years ago, Clarence Fort helped desegregate Tampa.
Inside the five-and-dime, 20-year-old Clarence Fort stepped toward the lunch counter and considered the likelihood that he was about to be beaten, cursed, arrested or worse.
“I was nervous because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “I just knew I had to sit down and take my lumps.”
Earlier that month, Fort had followed news reports of a sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and was inspired to do something similar in Tampa, where the same sort of Jim Crow laws kept the races apart. African-Americans could shop at F. W. Woolworth’s downtown Tampa location, for example, but were not allowed to sit or eat at the store’s lunch counter. That also went for the W.T. Grant lunch counter nearby.
Around lunchtime Monday, Feb. 29, 1960, Fort, who headed up the Tampa NAACP’s youth council at the time, led 35 high school students on a march from a nearby church to the Woolworth’s on Franklin Street. Fort sat down first, and the students took the rest of the available seats. They were met with surprise rather than violence. Within a few moments, the store’s employees turned off the lights and placed “closed” signs on the counter.
“The white patrons got up and left,” Fort says. “It was just us, sitting by ourselves at a dark lunch counter. We sat there for about 30 minutes and then we got up and walked outside. And after we got outside, they turned the lights back on — and so we went back in.They cut the lights again, and we stayed another 15-20 minutes and then we left.”
The protesters were back the next day. This time, there were more than 50 of them. They split into two groups. One group went to Woolworth’s and the other to Grant’s. After a week of the non-violent sit-ins, Tampa’s then-Mayor Julian Lane appointed a biracial committee to discuss segregation issues and, by September 1960, the city’s lunch counters were integrated.
Fort, now 77, wasn’t finished. Soon after, he led an effort to force Tampa’s transportation department to hire African-American bus drivers, and then led another effort that resulted in African-American women getting jobs as telephone operators. He also successfully worked to integrate area theaters and beaches.
Fort had been self-employed as a barber during this time, which he says was helpful because he didn’t have to worry about getting fired by an employer unhappy with his organizing work. Cutting hair didn’t pay much, and so he tried for several years to get a job as a Trailways bus driver even though the company didn’t hire African- American drivers.
“I had to go by Trailways seven times before they even would give me an application,” he says. “They eventually hired me, and I was the first African-American based in Florida to drive for Trailways.”
Although he encountered racism often — from passengers who refused to ride on his bus to fellow drivers who would leave when he walked into a drivers break room — Fort liked being a bus driver. He left after 14 years only because the company wanted him to relocate from Tampa to Miami. Rather than uproot his family, he got a job with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. His 20 years there included stints as a detentions officer, a warrants detective and finally a community liaison in the crime prevention unit.
Now retired, Fort still works. Each Saturday, he mentors students enrolled in the Saving Our Children program he started 26 years ago at the New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa. He’s also setting up an exercise program at an east Tampa park named in his honor last year. The Clarence Fort Freedom Trail includes a half-mile walking trail with eight fitness stations.
Fort had always hoped he’d get something named for him — a park, a road, anything — based on his civil rights work, but as the years went by that had seemed less likely. He worried that the Tampa sit-ins, which helped instigate the civil right’s movement in Florida, would be forgotten.
He spoke of his concerns more than 10 years ago to Bob Buckhorn when the former city councilman was considering a run for Tampa mayor. Buckhorn told him that if he ever became mayor, he would do something to recognize the historical significance of the sit-ins. After Buckhorn won the mayoral race in 2011, he played a major role in naming the park after Fort. “What Clarence did on that day,” he says, “is going to be remembered forever.”