ST. PETERSBURG — Leon Jackson recalls the water fountain at the St. Petersburg Police Station in the 1960s by the front desk, where a white officer habitually placed a sign that read “white.”
He also remembers his friend and former co-worker Freddie Crawford snatching the sign down every time.
“That’s how brave he was,” Jackson, 79, said of Crawford, who recently died. “That’s the type of leader that man was.”
The stories of Jackson, Crawford and countless others are unpacked at the Florida Holocaust Museum’s “Beaches, Benches and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay."
The exhibit details historic events within the civil rights struggle in Tampa Bay and Sarasota, including the Central Avenue riots in Tampa, the sanitation workers’ strike in St. Petersburg and the lynchings that occurred all over the region.
It may come as a surprise that a museum known for documenting the Holocaust and telling the stories of local survivors would highlight our region’s struggles with racial equality. But it shouldn’t. Both Jews and blacks have faced injustice and oppression.
Curator Erin Blankenship heard a past speaker explain it best: “The experiences didn’t match, but they rhymed.”
The museum has hosted traveling exhibitions about Jackie Robinson, an exhibit titled “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow" and presented the first Beaches, Benches and Boycotts exhibit in 2015. It was much smaller than the current one, which spans up to 2,500 square feet of the museum’s second floor.
The previous exhibit was paired with “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement," an exhibit that examined the movement nationally through the work and voices of nine photographers.
“That was the impetus for us deciding to create this exhibit,” Blankenship said. “We knew there was this history here, but we couldn’t believe that there hadn’t been anything done. No one had an organized exhibit about the civil rights movement here in Tampa Bay and it’s something that I think the community needs.”
So what’s different this time?
Blankenship said the 2015 version focused on the civil rights protests and events and it didn’t tell what the black communities were like before integration during the Jim Crow era.
"We’re highlighting that, and highlighting what those organizations — the black hospitals, the schools, the teachers — meant to community members, and what the community members meant to each other.”
On opening night in early September, the museum quickly surpassed its 200-person capacity. Some guests arrived early to tour the exhibit before a reception, and some stayed late to tour the entire exhibit.
“How did they get away with that?" someone said in disbelief.
Jackson, 79, sat proudly at the reception and accepted his Upstander Award from the museum. The award honors people who have helped better the community by speaking out and standing up to injustice.
In the 1960s, Crawford approached Jackson and 10 other black police officers with the idea to sue the police department. At that time, black officers were prevented from working at the front desk, working in white neighborhoods, arresting whites and investigating complaints about white citizens.
Their case made national news and the group became known as the Courageous 12, which aside from Jackson and Crawford included Adam Baker, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Hollands, Robert Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathanial Wooten.
Suing their employer initially scared them.
“We told Freddie, ‘Man, look, you know you’re putting us on the spot,' " said Jackson, the last living member of the Courageous 12. “'You know those people can suspend us or even fire us for filing a lawsuit.'"
"And Freddie Crawford said, ‘I don’t care. Let’s sue them.’ He was a leader and kept us motivated, and he made sure we didn’t back out of the lawsuit.”
They won their case on Aug. 1, 1968, in the crux of the national civil rights era — the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
But change didn’t happen overnight, and many white officers were still hesitant to work with them.
In November 1968, Jackson became the first black officer assigned to the police van that investigated accidents. The following spring, he became the city’s first black officer assigned to an all-white neighborhood in northeast St. Petersburg.
He was honored that the Courageous 12 has a presence in the exhibit.
“It really means a lot because what we did should be exposed,” Jackson said. “It should be known. We took a gamble and we took a very big chance. We put our jobs on the line."
The exhibit also includes video testimonials from community members sharing racist encounters growing up. There are props like a green bench, a nostalgic image of St. Petersburg’s past that appeared on postcards and tourism brochures, but excluded blacks by only allowing white residents and visitors to sit.
There’s also a Ku Klux Klan robe, a segregated doctor’s waiting room and artifacts from prominent community members including Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, who own St. Petersburg’s Chief’s Creole Cafe, St. Petersburg native Gwen Reese, Tampa native and historian Fred Hearns and Sarasota native Vickie Oldham.
Reese, Hearns and Oldham participated in a panel discussion about the history of their neighborhoods. Following the panel, Hearns was one of the last to tour the exhibit just before the museum closed.
“Everyone in Florida needs to see this,” he said. “This is long overdue. I mean, thank God it’s here. But this is unusual for Florida. It just seems so many people want to deny our history, but (the museum) got it right. This is the beginning of knowing better, and when you know better you are supposed to do better.”