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Julian B. Lane, renovated park's namesake, played key role in desegregating Tampa

Julian Lane, Tampa Mayor from October 1959 to October 1963, helped bring a peaceful solution to Tampa's desegregation of lunch counters.  [Times Archives]
Julian Lane, Tampa Mayor from October 1959 to October 1963, helped bring a peaceful solution to Tampa's desegregation of lunch counters. [Times Archives]
Published May 7, 2018

One mile separates Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and the site of downtown Tampa's former F.W. Woolworth.

But one year connects them.

It was 1960 when African American students gathered at that Woolworth store for sit-ins to desegregate Tampa's lunch counters.

And it was through the efforts of the park's namesake, the late-former Tampa Mayor Julian Lane, that the process remained peaceful.

Local civil rights leaders and historians say it's fitting that a week apart the park and the Woolworth will unveil upgrades to teach those history lessons.

Julian Lane Park officially reopens on Friday, following $35.5 million in renovations. Once a place few wanted to visit, the park at 1001 N Boulevard will feature sports courts, a festival lawn, a splash area and an entrance sign detailing the former mayor's accolades such as his civil rights work.

The city also will dedicate a historic marker memorializing the sit-ins a week later at 10 a.m. on May 19 in front of the building at 801 N Franklin St. that bears the Woolworth name.

"I hope they each keep the story alive," said local African-American historian Fred Hearns. "I hope people stop and read the marker and learn from it and then and visit the park, learn Mayor Lane's name and want to learn more about him."

The historic marker was the idea of Tammie Fields, a former news anchor in Tampa who is now with Spectrum News 13 in Orlando.

It will bear the names of the nearly 40 people who were part of the first Tampa Woolworth sit-in on February 29, 1960.

"We owe everyone who was part of the civil rights moment a 'thank you' for what they did," Fields said.

RELATED: Historian raises profile of African-American history with walks through Tampa's past

Among the names on the marker will be Clarence Fort, who, as a 21-year-old NAACP youth leader, recruited black high school students from Middleton and Blake for the initial civil protest at the Woolworth counter.

Students rather than adults were chosen, he said, because they did not have jobs to lose out of retribution.

"They immediately closed the counter and cut the lights," said Fort of the Woolworth employees. "We got up after 20 minutes, walked out and then they turned the lights back on. So, we went back in for another 20."

When his ranks doubled the following day, they added a second target: the nearby W.T. Grant store. And as protestors marched to both destinations, they were protected by Tampa police sent by the mayor.

In other southern cities, sit-ins brought violence through counter-protests, which were sometimes backed by the KKK. And on occasion police used forceful tactics to remove African Americans from the lunch counters.

Mayor Lane was determined to keep the peace in Tampa and secure equal rights for his black constituents.

RELATED: In death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired change around Tampa Bay

"My dad told the police if someone acts up, arrest them, whether they are white or black. Otherwise leave them alone," said Lane's daughter Susan. "My dad always just wanted to do the right thing."

Following a few more days of sit-ins with police escorts, Lane asked civil rights leaders like Fort and the Rev. A. Leon Lowry to cease the protests and work behind the scenes with the city and merchants to integrate the lunch counters.

Through months of meetings, it was decided that desegregation would begin quietly, slowly and on a small scale to avoid conflict.

The plan called for every lunch counter in Tampa to serve two African Americans at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m. for a one-week period in September, Fort said. After that, citywide desegregation would be announced.

This time, adults and not students would be used since maturity would likely bring patience in the face of hatred.

One white Woolworth customer spit on Fort's shoulder, but he said nothing major occurred as in other southern cities.

"It's because of Mayor Lane that Tampa was different," Fort said.

RELATED: IBuckhorn: Riverfront Park will be jewel in the crown of Tampa's park system

Still, it's speculated his role in the sit-ins cost him reelection in 1963.

"He said it was the Christian thing to do," Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell said. "But he likely paid for it politically."

Historian Hearns hopes more is done to honor what Lane.

"In Tampa his name is very seldomly repeated for what he did for this city," he said. "Mayor Lane needs a statue in the park. He is one of my heroes."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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