On Feb. 29, 1960, Clarence Fort was just shy of his 21st birthday, fresh out of barber's school and president of the NAACP Youth Council. That day he, and Rev. A. Leon Lowry, led a group of students from Blake and Middleton High Schools to F. W. Woolworth's in downtown Tampa.
They did what no blacks then were allowed to do. They sat down at the lunch counter and waited to be served. Fort's inspiration was the lunch counter sit-ins by students in Greensboro, N.C. that same year.
While blacks could enter Woolworth and buy its products, eating at the lunch counter was against the law.
"You could spend $500,000 in the store but you couldn't sit down and have a Coke," says Fort, now age 76. "It just was an unfair system."
At 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 18, the city of Tampa will name the Osborne Pond and Community Trail
in honor of Fort and his long history of fighting injustice. The park will be officially named the Clarence Fort Freedom Trail.
"I was just elated," says Fort when he learned of the city's plan.
The honor comes on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
“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. 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,” says Mayor Bob Buckhorn in his announcement for the dedication. “The park area itself is truly something special, and I think the residents will be proud of what it has become.”
The half-mile long trail circles Osborne Pond, at 3803 Osborne Ave., with eight fitness stations for adults and seniors spaced along the route at four locations. The park also features three boardwalk segments that give visitors a chance to walk to the water's edge for a bird's eye view of the egrets, ducks and moor hens that wade through the pond's waters.
More than 110 trees, including palms and cypress trees, offer shade and beauty. The trail connects with adjacent sidewalks on Osborne, North 29th Street, North 30th Street and East Cayuga Street.
About $500,000 in Community Investment Tax dollars paid for construction which began in December 2013.
This is the third city retention pond in East Tampa to be re-designed.
Years ago residents complained that the city's retention ponds, often locked behind chain link fences, were eyesores that contributed to neighborhood blight. Today residents stroll along walkways at the Herbert D. Carrington Community Lake on 34th Street, adjacent to Fair Oaks Park, or the Robert L. Cole Sr. Community Lake at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, across from Young Middle Magnet School.
Funds to re-do the retention ponds as "lakes" came from a portion of property taxes collected within the city's East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area bordered by Hillsborough Avenue, Interstates 275 and 4, and the city limits.
At the "lake" on Martin Luther King, segments of the walkway commemorate historical figures such as civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the first black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm; Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier; and President Barack Obama.
The city will place a plaque at Osborne pond that will recount the role Fort played in breaking down barriers in Tampa. Following the successful Woolworth demonstrations. Fort pushed the city's bus service to hire black bus drivers, and he became the first black hired by Trailways Bus Co. as a long-distance bus driver in Florida.
Fort worked 20 years as a deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department and for 17 of those years organized the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade. He also founded the Progress Village Foundation.
He isn't slowing down in retirement and works tirelessly with Saving Our Children, a youth program started nearly 26 years ago at New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. "I'm devoting all my time with this group," Fort says.
A rendering of the park can be viewed on the City of Tampa's website.
Writer: Kathy Steele
Sources: Clarence Fort, Saving Our Children; Bob Buckhorn, City of Tampa