Tuesday, January 16, 2018
News Roundup

Exhibit to highlight Tampa Bay area civil rights struggle

ST. PETERSBURG

Minson Rubin recalls signs that forbade and corralled "coloreds."

Gwen Reese remembers asking her mother with the persistence of a 6-year-old why they couldn't go into a Central Avenue movie theater where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was showing.

"Because negroes can't go to that theater," her mother answered.

"But why?" the young Gwen asked, again and again.

For Reese and Rubin, a new exhibit about the civil rights movement in the Tampa Bay area is about their own experience. It's about St. Petersburg's famous green benches on which they could not sit, forbidden water fountains, segregated schools and a designated beach that was rocky and dangerous.

That history should not be forgotten, said Reese, 66.

"It's about knowing who you are and it's about understanding, appreciating and valuing the sacrifices and the people who actually gave their lives to enable us to do much of what we do today," she said.

The exhibit, Beaches, Benches and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay, opens Aug. 1 at the Florida Holocaust Museum. Documents, advertisements, photographs and even a Ku Klux Klan robe, will tell of the civil rights struggle in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas and of some of the leaders who fought for change.

It is being paired with another exhibit that looks at the movement nationally. This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement will present the civil rights era through the work and voices of nine photographers who documented the national struggle from within the movement, primarily the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Clearwater lawyer Bob Fletcher was one of the SNCC photographers. In 1964, he was arrested in Harlem while taking photographs of a demonstration.

"I ended up spending the night in jail," he said. "I decided if I was going to be arrested for nonsense like this, I would go south and get arrested for something that was meaningful."

He became part of the SNNC photo team and later photographed such civil rights actions as demonstrations leading up to, and including "Bloody Sunday" and the Selma to Montgomery March.

He and the other photographers were doing important work, Fletcher said.

"From our viewpoint, we were documenting history in the making,'' he said. "This was a significant change in the whole country."

In St. Petersburg, the significant event was the 1968 sanitation strike.

"I was at St. Pete College" Reese recalled. "We had a SNCC office on 22nd Street. Stokley Carmichael actually came. I remember masses of people, black and white, standing listening to Stokley Carmichael. He was speaking right across from where Sylvia's (restaurant) is."

Rubin, 70, who graduated from then-segregated Gibbs High School, remembered that he and other members of the basketball team had to go to the back door of the downtown Walgreens if they wanted to buy something to eat.

"You could not sit at the counter. It was part of natural life," said Rubin, who later graduated from Florida A&M and taught in Pinellas County schools for more than three decades.

Erin Blankenship, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Florida Holocaust Museum, said she has been working to collect artifacts and photographs of the period. Most of the photos have come from the Tampa Bay Times archives. She has also taken advantage of the Robert and Helen Saunders Collection at the University of South Florida. Robert Saunders had been field secretary for the Florida NAACP.

The local exhibit will focus mainly on the 1960s and early 1970s, Blankenship said.

"It's just a glimpse. We talk about the sit-ins … integrating the beaches and certainly the school system. We talk about Spa Beach and we talk about Lido Beach in Sarasota."

Visitors will walk through the segregated waiting room doors of an Ybor City doctor's office to enter the exhibit.

"People are still surprised that this occurred here," Blankenship said. "I think people will be very interested to find out that we had some very important leaders, upstanders, leading the way to integrate all parts of life in Tampa Bay."

The museum, which honors the memory of the millions of men, women and children who died in the Holocaust, is an appropriate place for the civil rights exhibits, Reese said.

"Slavery and the Middle Passage were our Holocaust," she said.

"I admire the Jewish people for not forgetting the Holocaust. We should not allow anyone to forget our Holocaust."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

   
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