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Tampa Bay NAACP branches mark its centennial with a nod to history and a call to action

The birthday party was for a 100-year-old, but organizers wanted a younger crowd. So they booked the HipHopSodaShop in Tampa.

Today, the NAACP marks a century of struggles to ensure that black Americans can live, learn, work and vote anywhere. But along with the celebrations, NAACP leaders are looking to new challenges, among them attracting a new generation of members.

"I think Barack Obama proved that young people aren't apathetic," said banker Curtis Stokes, 40, president of the NAACP's Hillsborough branch. "You just have to have a cause they can believe in."

Monday night's party at the HipHopSodaShop drew about 100 people, and hosts tried to coax both young and middle-aged onto the dance floor together.

First Stevie Wonder's Happy Birthday brought out the older crowd.

Then the college kids took over during rapper Luke Skyywalker's It's Your Birthday.

Finally Marvin Gaye came on singing Got to Give it Up.

Everybody danced.

• • •

The NAACP in Tampa Bay goes back more than 90 years.

The Tampa branch was chartered in 1917, four years after residents began pleading for help.

A study in 1927 found 23,000 black residents in Tampa, according to USF historian Gary Mormino. Most lived in squalid rental housing that lacked toilets or bathtubs.

Blacks were banned from city parks, unless they were servants. There was no park, pool, beach or YMCA for them.

Most worked as unskilled laborers or domestic servants. Those educated enough to teach were paid about half what their white counterparts made.

Across the bay, activists chartered the St. Petersburg chapter in 1934.

The organization began to gain prominence in Florida in the 1940s, said Ray Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at USF in St. Petersburg.

"Until 1961, the NAACP was pretty much the only game in town," he said. "Since (then) there have been multiple organizations. Some people have felt that the NAACP has not been as militant and on the leading front as they should be. But they've maintained an important presence for going on 70 years."

On both sides of Tampa Bay, the NAACP waged decades-long legal struggles for voting rights and integration.

As a high school senior, the Rev. Shafter E. Scott worked with NAACP leaders on student sit-ins at Kress and Woolworth's in downtown Tampa.

"They walked with us and told us not to be afraid," he said.

But after the sit-ins, gunmen shot into the Tampa home of the Rev. A. Leon Lowry, the Florida president of the NAACP.

Also in the 1960s, Talmadge Rutledge found three bullet holes in his Clearwater home. One pierced a window. Another went through a door. The third hit a pipe.

Rutledge, 80, was agitating for school integration as president of the NAACP's Upper Pinellas/Clearwater branch.

Back then, he also sat alone at a Woolworth's lunch counter and went with fellow activists to a whites-only nightclub on Clearwater Beach. Both times, there was no trouble.

Other times, he landed in jail.

And then there were the late-night calls. No one ever said a word. But the message was clear: Watch your step.

"There was a lot of resistance, but we had some persistence," he said.

Today, Rutledge remains active but surmises that few, if any, of his five grown children belong to the NAACP. He hopes his grandson will join and step forward. That's how it used to work.

"The elderly people were the fundraisers, and the younger people did the legwork," he said. "We still need those two elements involved."

• • •

Like NAACP chapters nationwide, Tampa Bay's chapters want to increase their membership at a time when interest in the organization seems to have waned.

The NAACP's chapters in Tampa and St. Petersburg each have about 500 members, with a smaller core of active supporters.

Worldwide, membership totals 600,000, with members in Germany, Italy and Japan.

That number has held steady since just after World War II, when membership rolls peaked, NAACP spokesman Richard McIntyre said.

Newly elected St. Petersburg branch president Ray Tampa hopes to attract 3,000 members through outreach to churches, sororities and fraternities and local media.

"There's so many issues, so many challenges, that the community needs an advocacy organization," said Tampa, a retired principal and co-owner of the Kizmet Old School Cafe in St. Petersburg.

Those priorities include black-on-black crime, economic development and disparities in health care and education.

In Tampa, Stokes wants to focus on issues such as black high school graduation rates, making college more affordable and helping minority-owned businesses.

Perhaps the organization's biggest recruiting tool for young people is its national president, 35-year-old Benjamin T. Jealous.

Tuesday, Jealous said it helps to have President Obama in the White House.

"Community organizing is cool again, and that makes our life a lot easier," said Jealous, who most wants to recruit 25- to 45-year-olds.

They're pressed for time, so he's using Web initiatives like last fall's "Upload 2 Uplift" voter registration program. "You've got to make it easy, and you've got to make it quick," Jealous said.

The NAACP's targets also have changed and now include: Income disparities among whites and blacks. The achievement gap in education. Minority health care. Banks that engage in predatory lending.

Still, the NAACP remains decidedly local, said national board member and longtime Clearwater NAACP leader Leon Russell.

"It's always been about local communities and local people making changes," he said. "If we intend to see our communities progress over the next 100 years, then it still has to be about engaging people at the local level."

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

NAACP timeline

Feb. 12, 1909

Founded in New York by a multiracial group that included W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.


Protests Woodrow Wilson's introduction of segregation into the federal government.


Organizes nationwide protests of D.W. Griffith's racially inflammatory silent film Birth of a Nation.


Tampa chapter founded.


St. Petersburg chapter founded.


Florida field secretary Harry T. Moore and his wife murdered when a bomb goes off under his bed. Replaced by Tampa's Robert Saunders.


St. Petersburg branch leads the way in desegregating Spa Beach.


NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall wins Supreme Court battle to desegregate public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education.


NAACP member Rosa Parks arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man in Montgomery, Ala.


NAACP-led sit-ins lead to integration of Tampa lunch counters.


Helps desegregate St. Petersburg hotels for black baseball players during spring training.


First black student in Tampa attends school with white children.


Congress passes Civil Rights Act.


Voting Rights Act is passed.


Pinellas schools desegregated countywide through court-ordered busing. Racially charged fights break out at Dixie Hollins and Boca Ciega high schools.


Federal judge blocks an election for Hillsborough County Commission after the NAACP contends that the commission plan discriminated against blacks and was not cleared by the U.S. Justice Department.


Tampa NAACP successfully opposes a museum and entertainment complex based on the slave ship Whydah.


Tampa and Plant City NAACP chapters merge to form Hillsborough County branch.


Pasco branch reorganizes. It had been active from the mid 1960s to the late 1990s, then lost its charter.

Times staff writers

centennial events

• Free forum on education issues, 6 to 8 p.m. tonight at Middleton High School, 4801 N 22nd St.

• Bus tour of black-owned businesses, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Meet at the Good Luck Cafe, 1910 E Seventh Ave., in Ybor City. Cost is $5.

• Rededication service for NAACP members, 4 p.m. Sunday at Beulah Baptist Church, 1006 W Cypress St.

Call Pat Spencer at (813) 205-3834.

Tampa Bay NAACP branches mark its centennial with a nod to history and a call to action 02/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 11:25pm]
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