We’ve been here before: A brief history of race relations in Tampa

A black man dies at the hands of police officers. A community reaches its limit of crying out but not being heard. Tensions rise on both sides until a flashpoint, followed by rioting and looting.

Yes, this is America in 2020, but it was also America in the 1960s. When we are faced with events that surprise us -- even confound us -- we grasp for answers. Some of the whys and hows of recent protests, and the horrific event that preceded them, can be found in history. Tampa’s own experience with race relations and the Civil Rights Movement is punctuated with confrontations similar to what has occurred over the past few days and weeks.

On June 11, 1967, a young black man implicated in a robbery was shot near the intersection of Cass Street and Nebraska Avenue while fleeing from police. The death of 19-year-old Martin Chambers prompted protests from the people living in Central Park Village, at the time Tampa’s largest African American neighborhood. The death of Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy Don Williams during that protest (by a heart attack, which was not immediately known at the time) sent the situation into a tailspin. Two days later, the already hurting Central Avenue Business District, the segregation-era black business and entertainment area, plus the surrounding neighborhood, was a smoldering wasteland.

What brought Tampa to that point in the summer of 1967, and what followed that can perhaps give us direction today.

Prior to the riot, Tampa’s white leaders spoke openly about how positive the relations were between the city’s white and black residents. By the 1960s, Tampa’s Latin population, whose grandparents and great grandparents arrived in the city beginning in the 1880s, had mostly assimilated into the larger society. Socioeconomic standing, rather than ethnicity, largely dictated the level of assimilation. Tampa had even elected its first Latin mayor, Nick Nuccio, in the 1950s. Latins were also represented at various times on the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners and on Tampa City Council, but not since Reconstruction had there been any elected black public officials.

The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa began in earnest on Feb. 29, 1960, with a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter downtown. This was part of a loosely coordinated effort across the South to open up businesses to black customers on an equal basis. The protests were intended to be peaceful and passive, starting first at Woolworth’s then spreading to W.T. Grant’s and Walgreens. Lunch counters at national chains were seen as safe locations, but also potentially much more effective because changing the segregated practices of a large company would have far-reaching results.

In Tampa’s case, there was only mild violence and menacing words brought by opponents to integration, and the only police involvement came when two whites were removed from Walgreens because they became abusive to those protesting the segregated conditions.

Bi-racial approach brings positive change

The fact that there was little violence during these early demonstrations is due in part to the creation of Tampa’s Bi-Racial Commission. Formed by Mayor Julian Lane on Oct. 12, 1959, the Racial Relations Study Committee (as it was first called) was likely the idea of the Rev. A. Leon Lowry, a well-known African American pastor and president of the state NAACP, or James Hammond, who was a young African American activist at the time. The committee was the first in Florida and among the first (if not the first) in the South. It was composed of older and established white and black leaders from the city, including white leaders Lane, Tampa attorney Cody Fowler, and businessman Robert Thomas and black leaders Lowry, C. Blythe Andrews (publisher of the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin), Perry Harvey (head of the powerful longshoremen’s union), and the Rev. W.S. Banfield.

The Bi-Racial Commission did not know that the NAACP’s Youth Council was going to start protests at the downtown lunch counters, but it did support them, and another group known as Young Adults for Progressive Action when it came time to test whether the counters were truly open to African Americans in September 1960. Business owners and the Tampa Police Department were notified, but the press was not in an effort to minimize attention toward their initial efforts. Those efforts were successful, and Tampa’s lunch counters were officially integrated.

While the Bi-Racial Commission, and its so-called Tampa Technique, brought about eventual integration and a modest level of equal rights, that progress was painfully slow and there were still many problems that needed to be confronted. Those problems -- with police brutality at the top of the list -- were laid bare on that hot afternoon in June 1967 with the killing of Martin Chambers.

The riots that started on and near Central Avenue spilled over into West Tampa and East Tampa, particularly near the intersection of Lake Avenue and 22nd Street. That same intersection became the epicenter of another riot nearly 20 years later, in February 1987, following the death of Melvin Hair after he was placed in a chokehold by a Tampa police officer. The deaths of Chambers and Hair prompted procedural changes within the police department -- elimination of firing a weapon at a fleeing suspect involved in petty crime in Chambers' case and the elimination of the use of the chokehold following Hair’s death. Still, there was progress to be made, as indicated by other outbursts of protests following other police-involved violence.

Where do we go from here?

Perhaps a look at an even more distant past can help. Possibly the best lesson of tolerance comes from a time when things were at their most intolerant. That lesson sits in Tampa’s historic Oaklawn Cemetery. During the mid-19th century, at least one prominent white Tampan, William Ashley, carried on a long-term, public relationship with a black woman. While this was not uncommon, his final pronouncement of devotion to her, and presumably her to him, does seem out of the ordinary. When William Ashley died in 1873, he requested in his will that his companion (and former slave), Nancy Ashley, be buried with him when she passed away. As executor of the Ashley estate, John Jackson, a former Mayor of Tampa, carried out Ashley’s wish and, when Nancy died several months later, she was laid to rest in the same casket with William. Their tombstone bears the following inscription:
Here Lie William Ashley and Nancy Ashley, Master and Servant; faithful to each other in that relation in life, in death they are not seperated (sic). Strangers, consider and be wise -- in the grave all human distinctions of race or color mingle together in one common dust.
 – To commemorate their fidelity to each other this stone was erected by their Executor. John Jackson, 1873.

If the relationship of William and Nancy Ashley could be tolerated -- and possibly even accepted -- in the days leading up to and immediately following the Civil War, then perhaps there is still hope for the future. Perhaps, too, it is fitting that the park at the center of the local protests in response to the death of George Floyd borders Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa.

Historian Rodney Kite-Powell is Director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa Bay History Center.
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