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Tampa honors 1960 sit-ins that desegregated downtown lunch counters

TAMPA — When 80-year-old Clarence Fort passes the corner of Franklin and Polk streets, he remembers the segregated F.W. Woolworth store where "you could spend $100 in the store but not sit at the lunch counter and order a Coke."

So as a 21-year-old NAACP youth leader, he organized and participated in the Woolworth sit-in demonstration to desegregate lunch counters in Tampa.

While the store on 800 N Franklin St. is long closed, the building remains, and on Saturday the city memorialized the sit-in by unveiling a historic marker that names those 40 students who took part in the first protest on Feb. 29, 1960.

"These people helped transformed Tampa into the city it is today," Fort said.

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Students who staged similar sit-ins in other southern cities were attacked by white patrons who struck them, poured food on them and attempted to pull them from their seats.

Fort and the others knew they were risking being exposed to the same kind of violence but proceeded anyway. The worst that happened, Fort said, was when a white Woolworth patron spit on his shoulder.

When they first sat down, the Woolworth staff immediately closed the counter and turned off the lights, Fort said. The students waited for 20 minutes before leaving. Once they did, the employees opened the counter again, he said.

"We went back inside for another 20 minutes," Fort said.

In other cities, police arrested and sometimes dragged African-Americans out of the stores. But that wasn’t the case in Tampa. The students had the backing of at least one important city official.

"Tampa Mayor Julian Lane refused to be bullied into trying to stop the sit-in demonstrations," Fort said. "In fact, after the first day he ordered the Tampa Police Department to meet our group at the church and escort us downtown."

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Dozens attended Saturday’s ceremony, including a few whose names are embossed on the marker. Former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner said people often ask her if she was afraid during the sit-in.

"No, we were young and fearless," Joyner said. "I was tired of coming down here and ordering something to go. Or going to a department store but not being able to try something on. I was tired of looking at those ‘colored’ and ‘white’ water fountains."

While the young people were ready to question the establishment, the sit-ins would not have happened without Fort, Joyner said.

"Clarence was the right person at the right time to go to Middleton and Blake High School and get the student leaders to go along," Joyner said.

The historic marker was the idea of Tammie Fields, a former television news anchor in Tampa who now works in Orlando. Fields said it was the work of these students that allows her to go into a Starbucks and meet colleagues without question.

"I don’t ever want to forget that," Fields said. "The only reason why I did this was to pay homage to these folks."

Many of those listed on the marker did not stop at the Woolworth sit-in, but continued to make a difference in Tampa for decades, said Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

"These are individuals that continued to give back to this community," Buckhorn said. "That’s why the court house is named for George Edgecomb. That’s why a library is named for Arthenia Joyner, and why a park is named after Clarence Fort."

Seated near the back of the crowd in a wheelchair pushed by his daughter was Alonza Giles. Giles was seated right next to Fort at the counter nearly 60 years ago, he said.

The protest was one of his proudest moments, Giles said. When he returned to college he wrote about his experience.

"I’m glad to see it," the 74-year-old Giles said of the marker. "It was about time for them to do something."

Contact Jonathan Capriel at 813-225-3141 or [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel

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