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White hats, green benches and KKK robes: USF 3D scans civil rights artifacts

“There are certain things that happened here that cannot and should not be forgotten or we could repeat them."

TAMPA — A Ku Klux Klan robe represents the racism once publicly on display in the Tampa Bay area.

A white hard hat represents the civility that helped bring peace and change.

Together, those artifacts and others tell the story of the racial strife that the area overcame, Davide Tanasi, director of the University of South Florida’s Institute for Digital Exploration, said.

Tanasi’s department led the effort that made a collection of local civil rights era artifacts accessible to everyone with a computer or smart device, hoping that doing so will help people avoid the mistakes of the past.

“This project is about memory,” Tanasi said. “There are certain things that happened here that cannot and should not be forgotten or we could repeat them. And the only way to do that is by using powerful media.”

That “powerful media” is 3D scanning. The artifacts were part of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s “Beaches, Benches and Boycotts” exhibit on the area’s civil rights movement.

The scans are now online on the St. Petersburg museum’s website, flholocaustmuseum.org.

The exhibit was temporary, running from September 2019 through March 2020.

Then came the May 25 death of George Floyd and the months of national marches against what protesters say is systemic racism throughout the United States.

Related: USF historians seek to unravel mystery behind roulette wheel

Tanasi’s department was already 3D scanning the museum’s permanent collection to make it available to the public — the facility remains temporarily closed due to the coronavirus.

He suggested also scanning the “Beaches, Benches and Boycotts” exhibit to remind people that past generations have been down this road and found a way to bring about positive results.

The scans allow online visitors to get a better feel for the collection’s 18 items than they would through flat photographs. They can spin the hard hat in circles and flip the artifact upside down to see the inside of it.

And they can better view a stain on the KKK robe that Tanasi said might be blood. “It gives chills,” he said.

The Ku Klux Klan robe was anonymously donated to the Florida Holocaust Museum. It was later incorporated into the museum's "Beaches, Benches and Boycotts" exhibit. It came from an anonymous donor who bought property and found it in the attic.
The Ku Klux Klan robe was anonymously donated to the Florida Holocaust Museum. It was later incorporated into the museum's "Beaches, Benches and Boycotts" exhibit. It came from an anonymous donor who bought property and found it in the attic. [ Courtesy of the Florida Holocaust Museum ]

The KKK once operated openly and boldly here. In 1937, 200 Klansmen marched into St. Petersburg neighborhoods to scare Black residents from voting in the police chief election.

Related: The would-be blockbuster shot in Tampa was supposed to combat racism. That was a century ago.

“That robe has been held in our collection for more than 20 years,” said Erin Blankenship, the Florida Holocaust Museum’s director of collections and interpretation. “It came from an anonymous donor who bought property and found it in the attic.”

Another of the scanned artifacts is a green bench. As many as 7,000 such benches once lined St. Petersburg streets to promote outdoor socialization. But the benches are also a reminder of the city’s racist past.

“They were not for Black people,” Tanasi said. “They had to sit elsewhere.”

Related: St. Pete’s iconic green benches: Their legacy is more painful than you think

A scan of a child’s New York Yankees jersey is another example of St. Petersburg’s segregation.

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, but Black players still could not room at the same hotels as their white teammates during Spring Training in the Tampa Bay area.

So, Yankees player Elston Howard would stay at the St. Petersburg home of Dr. Ralph Wimbish and sleep in Ralph Jr.'s bed. As a thank you, Howard sent Ralph Jr. the jersey.

Davide Tanasi, center, poses for a portrait with his students at the department of History, Madeleine Kraft and Stephan Hassan. In partnership with Florida Holocaust Museum, Tanasi is 3D scanning local rights artifacts so they can be virtually shared with the world.
Davide Tanasi, center, poses for a portrait with his students at the department of History, Madeleine Kraft and Stephan Hassan. In partnership with Florida Holocaust Museum, Tanasi is 3D scanning local rights artifacts so they can be virtually shared with the world. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Still, the scanned white hat is a symbol of what is possible, Tanasi said.

In 1967, a white Tampa police officer fatally shot unarmed Black teenager Martin Chamber in the back as he fled the scene of a burglary. What followed were days of riots in Black neighborhoods that destroyed seven buildings.

Called in to end the riots were 500 Florida National Guardsmen, 235 Florida Highway Patrol troopers and 250 local law enforcement officers.

Related: Racism in Tampa boiled over 50 years ago into Central Avenue riots

But it was the neighborhoods' Black residents who brought peace. Around 100 of them put on white hard hats to denote they were peacekeepers, walked the streets, talked to the rioters and calmed the anger.

Civil rights leaders then engaged with city leaders to bring about changes such as employment opportunities for Blacks as firefighters and in Tampa City Hall.

“Not everyone knows these stories,” Blankenship said. “These 3D images are our way of making those materials and that history accessible to everyone.”

Tanasi hopes the artifacts teach an emotional lesson, too.

“Tampa Bay came together in the past,” he said. “It is more important than ever to come together again. We cannot afford to get divided. We need to get united.”

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