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State You’re In: Fiction can become fact, as Woolworth placard in Tampa shows

TAMPA — History can easily be distorted.

If wrong assumptions are made and repeated often enough, falsehoods have a way of becoming "fact."

"It happens," said Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department. "As with politics, when it comes to history, people sometimes see what they want to see."

That seems to be the case regarding two bronze sidewalk placards located just outside downtown Tampa’s former F.W. Woolworth building’s main entrance on the corner of Franklin and Polk streets.

For decades, these placards were said to be a lasting remnant of Woolworth’s Jim Crow-era racist policies. It’s a story cited by preservationists, historians and even Tampa city councils.

But it turns out the history lesson may be nothing more than a case of whisper down the lane.

As was once the norm throughout the South, there was a time when black patrons were forbidden from sitting at Tampa lunch counters.

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That changed in Tampa in 1960 when African American students led sit-ins at the downtown Woolworth. The demonstrations eventually resulted in the integration of all of the city’s lunch counters.

On Saturday, a historic marker with the names of those who took part in the first sit-in on February 29, 1960 was unveiled outside the Woolworth store.

It’s due to that real history that the story behind the placards was likely altered.

Each of the markers read: "Leased by F.W. Woolworth Co. Crossing by permission only. Permission removable at will."

One story was that the wording provided legal cover for store management to prevent black protestors from congregating on the crosswalk.

Another defined "crossing" as "entering" — African Americans could enter the store for shopping but could be "removed" if they tried to sit at the lunch counter.

It is possible that Woolworth used the placards for racist reasons, but that seems unlikely since Clarence Fort — who led the Tampa sit-ins — has never noticed or heard of them. "If that was the purpose," Fort said with a laugh, "it didn’t work."

For years, Rodney Kite-Powell, the curator of the Tampa History Center, heard those theories about the placards but said that while each sounded viable there was no evidence to back up racist intent.

"More research needs to be done," he said. "It’s not good to assume anything without proof."

When they were installed remains a mystery. But a search through digital news archives provides information about similar markers.

While no articles cited the placards outside the Tampa Woolworth, newspapers around the nation reported in the 1930s and 1940s on such signage being placed in sidewalks near buildings in other cities.

According to the articles, these have to do with adverse possession, better known today as squatting.

To "furnish a more conspicuous entrance," says one article, a business may leave a slice of vacant property in front of its main door.

Often, pedestrians then make such a piece of the property part of their daily paths, the articles says. If it becomes a shortcut for 21 years, the city could claim the property, unless the owner states through a sign that pedestrians are only using it because permission is granted.

"Sounds silly," reads one article, "but the lawyers require it."

This would not be the only time local history has been altered, USF’s Huse said.

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The Tampa area was not a home to pirates, for instance, but many believe otherwise because of the Gasparilla tradition and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"And somehow for years Miami was given credit for inventing the Cuban sandwich," Huse said.

There is a historic marker outside Ybor City’s El Pasaje building claiming Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti slept there when it was a hotel in the late-1800s. But the building was erected after Marti was killed in battle.

RELATED: José Martí historical marker outside Ybor building is wrong

Then there is Chinsegut Hill Manor. Located on 5,000-acres of Brooksville land, the owners in the 1900s built a platform in an oak tree to be used for religious services.

"I’ve heard USF professors say it was used to lynch slaves," Huse said. "A lot of people believed that but there is no truth to it at all."

The Jim Crow history of the Woolworth placards may be fake, said the history center’s Kite-Powell, but since it is one of the last remnants of a store that played a significant role in local history, he considers them to be valuable artifacts.

"It is part of the building’s history," he said, "and the history of that block should be preserved."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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