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Tampa's clubs integrate, slowly

Hurdle after hurdle, the sterling silver barriers that have excluded blacks in this city's closed society for generations are starting to come down. From the golf course to the hushed dining room, blacks are being accepted at Tampa's most exclusionary clubs for the first time.

In the last month blacks have been accepted into the University Club, the city's oldest and most private luncheon club; the Junior League, the premier organization for women; and the Rough Riders, a social and civic organization of long standing.

In addition, for the first time, a black stepped up to the tee at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, and the ultra-conservative Tampa Yacht & Country Club says some of its members are recruiting blacks.

The changes follow months of debate about desegregating the city's closed society of clubs and private associations, where black residents maintain much of the city's business is done.

While the main target of the criticism, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, has decided not to admit black members for now, other organizations have not postponed what some say is inevitable change. (In fact, the Krewe canceled its annual parade, rather than admit blacks and women.)

Henry Carley, president of the Tampa NAACP, said he was pleased with the progress, even though it involved only a few black citizens.

"I was told (some clubs) had plans to admit blacks," he said. "They didn't give me the names, they didn't give me the numbers. And I didn't care. I just wanted them to change."

Said Tampa City Council member Larry Smith, a Rough Rider: "It's almost like the white community is saying, "Oops, of course we should have invited you.' All of a sudden, people are more aware. The doors are now opening."

Mayor Sandy Freedman said the changes are a sign that "we are maturing as a community." She said the controversy over Gasparilla spurred some social groups, but was "not the sole reason for change."

First, and uncomfortable

Being the first member to break a color barrier can be uncomfortable, especially when change occurs in 1990, decades after other color bars were broken.

"It just never occurred to me that there wouldn't be any other black members," said Nancy Clark, the first black member of the Tampa Junior League.

Clark, who transferred from the Baltimore Junior League, said she has been welcomed warmly in Tampa, although she got "lots of surprised looks" when she went to her first league meeting in September. In Baltimore, she said, many members of the Junior League are black.

"I guess I keep forgetting this is the South," said Clark, a manager of the Talbots clothing store in Old Hyde Park. "It seems like such an old problem."

Lee Roy Selmon, a banker with First Florida Bank and a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, downplayed his new membership in the University Club.

"I'm kind of interested in why there is all this hoopla," said Selmon. "I would kind of like to keep a low profile."

Selmon said he accepted an invitation to join the University Club last month, though he had eaten at the club several times as a guest. The club, which began admitting women in 1988, has long been considered the city's bastion of white male establishment. Club President Jack Romano was on jury duty Monday and Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

Two weeks ago, Clarence McKee, chairman and chief executive officer of WTVT-Ch. 13, made history at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club when he became the first black to set foot on the prestigious course, members said. But McKee seemed unwilling to discuss the outing he made with club member Paul Hogan, and did not return several telephone calls to his office on Monday and Tuesday.

"I wasn't making any statement," said Hogan, who invited McKee. "I was just taking a friend of mine to play golf." The club has no black members and Hogan said he knows of no other black playing golf there before McKee.

A change in policy

Leaders of the social groups said that the recent changes did not represent a one-time commitment, but a change in policy.

Junior League President Julianne McKeel said her group plans to actively recruit more black women. "There are a lot of black members in leagues across the country," McKeel said. "We're a little slow in getting started, but we're getting there."

"They are serious about this," Carley said of the Junior League. "They mean what they say."

Smith said the Rough Riders were also dedicated to a more diverse membership. He said he invited three blacks to join and knows of at least 10 who have been asked. The Rough Riders, which has 300 members, also admits women.

Thomas M. Henderson III, commodore of the Tampa Yacht & Country Club, said the club did not have any black members now but that it was "correct to say" that some club members are making "overtures" to blacks in the community about possible membership. A member can be inducted at any time.

Carley added that the community must do more to progress.

"It's nice that a black man can play golf at Palma Ceia," Carley said. "But I would like to see a way to translate social progress into economic gains for all black citizens."