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Tampa park honors lunch counter sit-in leader Clarence Fort

TAMPA — As a 20-year-old barber in 1960, Clarence Fort used to listen to his customers talk about the lack of hope and fairness for Tampa's black residents.

Jobs were scarce, theaters segregated. Downtown five-and-dime stores took their money but refused to let them sit down at the lunch counter for a hamburger or a Coca-Cola.

So on Feb. 29, 1960, as the new president of the NAACP Youth Council, Fort and the Rev. A. Leon Lowry led 50 Blake and Middleton high school students in a sit-in at F.W. Woolworth's lunch counter on Franklin Street.

It was an act of courage that still resonates after over half a century. On Wednesday, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he will name the new Osborne Pond and Community Trail in recognition of Fort's role in Tampa's civil rights movement.

At first, Woolworth's tried to ignore the teens, close and turn off the lights. It didn't work and the sit-ins grew. With Easter coming, there was talk of black customers boycotting the downtown five-and-dimes where they did much of their shopping.

But unlike cities that responded to sit-ins with violence, then-Mayor Julian B. Lane assigned police to escort the young protesters. And after a week or so, Lane agreed to appoint a biracial committee to look into the complaints. That September, Tampa's lunch counters were integrated.

"There were no clashes," said Fort, 76. Still, on the first day of integrated dining, his breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits, toast and coffee was interrupted by two young white men who harassed and called him names, prompting the manager to intervene. "I never did finish that meal."

After the lunch counters, Fort worked on integrating Tampa's theaters, led an initiative to integrate the workforce of the city's bus service, became one of the first black drivers in Florida for the Trailways bus line and served for 20 years as a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy.

Naming the East Tampa park the Clarence Fort Freedom Trail is meant not only to honor the man, Buckhorn said, "but also the ideas that he fought for."

"It's important that we as a community know and understand our history, particularly during the 50-year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act being signed into law," Buckhorn said in announcing the plan.

On Sept. 18, Fort and East Tampa community leaders will cut the ribbon at the park, which is at 3803 E Osborne Ave.

The half-mile trail goes around a 3.8-acre pond and has eight fitness stations at four different spots. It connects to sidewalks along Osborne Avenue, N 29th Street, N 30th Street and E Cayuga Street.

The park also has three sections of boardwalk that will let visitors walk at the water's edge. The city is planting more than 110 palm, cypress and other trees as part of the $500,000 project.

The pond itself has a colorful history. In the 1940s, a congregation from a nearby church would gather there for full-immersion baptisms. Later, the pond became such a notorious dumping spot that it had to be fenced off with barbed wire.

The trail is meant to reopen it to the public and turn its story back toward redemption.

"They did an excellent job on it," Fort said.

In the decades since the sit-ins, he has not stopped volunteering. As a deputy, he served as coordinator of the local Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade, founded the Progress Village Foundation and has led a "Saving Our Children" program for 26 years at New Mount Zion Baptist Church.

And as he looks at the park, he sees opportunity.

"One of the things I would like to do is organize a walking, jogging and exercise club so that youngsters and seniors can have a healthy lifestyle," he said.

Still organizing?

Yes, he said, "I'm still at it."

Contact Richard Danielson at danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

Tampa park honors lunch counter sit-in leader Clarence Fort 08/27/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 11:44pm]
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