TALLAHASSEE — Every day, people in the state's capital city pass by the historic site of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in and just see an old, abandoned brick storefront. But two black lawmakers, one of whom was behind the Legislature's formal slavery apology two years ago, see the building as a symbol of Florida's important role in the civil rights movement.
Now they want the state to establish a memorial in Tallahassee to honor that history.
Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, and Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, have filed legislation to create the Civil Rights Hall of Fame, similar to existing state memorials that highlight the historic contributions of women and artists.
"So many visitors come to Tallahassee every year and they see exhibits about the contributions that women and artists made," said Williams, a fifth-generation Floridian. "But we don't have anything to honor the Floridians who played a role in the civil rights movement. We talk a lot about charting our future, about building the biotech industry. But we also have to honor our past and the individuals who paved the way."
The Hall of Fame would be the latest step in the Legislature's recent attempts to heal historic wounds of segregation and slavery. In 2008, Hill and other black lawmakers led the successful effort to remove racially insensitive lyrics from the state song. They also pushed for, and secured, a formal apology by the Legislature for the state's history of slavery.
Hill and Williams are realistic about the state's finances, namely a budget deficit of as much as $3 billion. So for now their bill (SB1354) is narrowly tailored. It proposes the creation of the Civil Rights Hall of Fame similar to the Florida Women's Hall of Fame, which puts on an exhibit and annual events honoring women important to the state's history.
But ultimately, Hill would like to see the Hall of Fame turned into a full-fledged museum near the Capitol building in downtown Tallahassee. The museum could operate with state, private and even federal dollars, Hill said. The ideal location would be the long-shuttered brick building that housed a popular local department store lunch counter, where 50 years ago, students of historically black Florida A&M University staged one of the earliest sit-ins to protest segregated lunch counters.
The Seminole Indian tribe has owned the property for a decade, according to tribe spokesman Gary Bitner. At one point there was talk of building a hotel on the site at Monroe and Jefferson streets, but that was before the economy tanked. Bitner said the tribe has "no specific plans" for the site, which consists of four adjoining parcels that together are worth more than $1 million.
"It's probably more dependent on the market than anything else," Bitner said.
Hill said he would like the state to buy the property and restore it for the museum site.
"We know there might not be any funding this year," said Hill. "But if we can just get this in statute, we can start planning and we can look for private funding."
The Civil Rights Hall of Fame would be set up inside the Capitol, and each year the Florida Commission on Human Relations would choose 10 nominees for induction. The governor would whittle that list down to three Hall of Fame honorees "who have made a significant contribution and provided exemplary leadership toward Florida's progress and achievements in civil rights," according to the proposal.
"I think it's a great idea," said Gov. Charlie Crist, whose father served in the mid '60s as the volunteer team doctor for segregated Gibbs High's all-black football team. Crist was just a kid, but he recalls sitting with players on the sidelines on Friday nights. "We have to recognize those who have paid such a heavy price for our rights. It's only appropriate."
Several other states have large museums dedicated to civil rights. The 43,000-square-foot International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, N.C., opened this week, honoring the "Greensboro Four" and others who led nonviolent sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counters and elsewhere 50 years ago.
FAMU students led similar sit-ins during that spring of 1960, staging nonviolent protests at McCrory's, Woolworth's, Walgreens and Sears. In 1956, two FAMU students — Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson — were arrested after refusing to give up their seats to a white passenger, prompting other FAMU students to stage a bus boycott. FAMU students plan to re-create the 1960 sit-in next weekend, marking the 50th anniversary and Black History Month.
Just this week, state officials mourned the death of Harry Singletary, who grew up in segregated Pinellas County and went on to be appointed the first African-American to run Florida's prison system. Hill and Williams said people like Singletary and the FAMU students deserve prominent recognition for their achievements.
"We need a Hall of Fame to recognize people like that," Hill said. "When kids come into this Capitol, we should be teaching them that."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.