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Diverse Gasparilla parade has transcended insult of racism

Members of the Buffalo Soldiers prepare for the start of the 2012 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates. The all-black krewe joined the parade after it was integrated in 1992. [Times files]
Members of the Buffalo Soldiers prepare for the start of the 2012 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates. The all-black krewe joined the parade after it was integrated in 1992. [Times files]
Published Jan. 23, 2017

TAMPA — The Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, Tampa's signature good-time event, brings back memories of disappointment and insult for Fred Hearns.

A clarinet player with the Middleton High School Marching Band in 1965, Hearns was thrilled to learn his would be the first all-black band to march in the annual parade. But the excitement was short-lived. The band that followed, all white, stood and let Middleton march five blocks before finally stepping out.

"We were not really part of the parade," recalls Hearns, 68. "We were totally separate. Why do that to a black band? That's not hard to figure out."

The message in those days was delivered in many ways: Blacks would never join fully in the fun, never enjoy a place among the movers and shakers of Tampa who let loose at Gasparilla time, certainly never gain membership in the exclusive club that stages the event each year — Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

Five decades later, there's no forgetting the disappointment and insult for those who experienced it. But the number of black members in Gasparilla matters little any more.

Gasparilla wasn't about dressing as a pirate. It was a symbol of the exclusion blacks experienced in all walks of life. And while few have actually joined the Krewe of Gasparilla — four today, in a group with an estimated 800 members — blacks know they can get in if they want to.

"It's not an issue," said James Ransom, who, as a board member of the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, led the push for krewe equality. "They are inclusive now."

And now, as the estimated 300,000 people a year who attend the parade reach for beads, these symbols of revelry are being tossed by pirates who look as eclectic as Tampa's population is. There are Latin krewes, female krewes, black krewes, a gay krewe, even a krewe of chefs.

There are few signs of the racism that plays a part in the history of the event, or of the heartbreak once experienced by a young, black, band member.

• • •

It was 1991 when Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla began accepting black men as members — the first local krewe to do so. In 1992, they marched in the parade.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who served as special assistant to former Tampa Mayor Sandra Freedman at the time of the integration, praises parade organizers for finally coming around.

"Today, the Gasparilla parade has a place for everyone regardless of your ethnicity, race, orientation or religion," Buckhorn said. "Ye Mystic Krewe deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that the parade should reflect this mosaic we call Tampa."

But it was a change that didn't come easily, Buckhorn acknowledged.

Initially, the Krewe of Gasparilla was so resistant to the idea of fair access to membership that it cancelled the parade in 1991 rather than bow to the requests of civil rights leaders.

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Even today, the krewe shows reluctance to discuss this version of events.

"'Fair' can be beholden to a lot of different perspectives," said Christopher Lykes, captain of the Krewe of Gasparilla. "I may tell it differently."

Lykes is a member of the pioneering Lykes family, owners of a Tampa-based conglomerate dating to the 1870s whose operations once included farming, ranching, mining, banking and one of the world's largest shipping lines. He offered no alternative version of the krewe's integration.

When pressed for how many blacks are in his krewe now, Lykes said only that he does not categorize its members by race or color. Will the krewe ever allow women members?

"To my knowledge," he said, "it's never been raised."

But Bob Monroe, the first African-American to join the krewe, knows how many blacks belong — four, including him.

At its peak, Monroe said, there were six blacks in the krewe, in line with membership of other older Gasparilla krewes.

The Krewe of the Knights of Sant' Yago, chartered in 1972, has two blacks among its 250 members, said Randy Conte, a member of the Latin-centric organization.

The Tampa Rough Riders founded in 1978 has three blacks among its 550 members, said President Bonnie Stofer.

Each krewe blamed the small percentage of blacks — African-Americans account for 27 percent of Tampa's population — on lack of interest in membership, not exclusionary policies.

Civil rights leader Otis Anthony said integrating the Krewe of Gasparilla paved the way for the founding of krewes with significant black membership, including the Buffalo Soldiers, a largely black krewe.

"Tampa had an invisible wall that people knew not to cross when it came to color," Anthony said. "No one would have thought about African-Americans in a krewe until Ye Mystic Krewe changed."

• • •

The first parade was staged in 1904, hosted by the all-male, all-white krewe named for fictitious pirate Jose Gaspar. They included men considered today as city fathers.

The parade's makeup changed when the Krewe of Venus was formed with men and women members in 1965 and granted permission to march in 1966. Still, the Venus krewe was also all-white.

"We were shunned," said Bernie Smalls, 70, president of Hillsborough County NAACP. "It showed how uncivilized Tampa was."

In time, the civil rights movement moved America away from outwardly discriminatory laws. But African-Americans here were far from equal ground. The chamber of commerce had no black members and black-owned businesses weren't getting government contracts, civil rights leader Anderson said.

In 1990, Anthony wrote the "Black Agenda on Economic Inclusion," outlining what his view of the moves necessary to bring about equality on a local level. Among them: access to elite social organizations.

"That is where deals are made," Anthony said. "If you exclude us then we are not being taken seriously as members of the community."

City and county leaders agreed to get to work on the agenda, in part by pushing for qualified African-Americans to be placed on the boards of directors of prominent corporations and not-for-profit groups, Anthony said.

The Krewe of Gasparilla, however, would not break with its all-white tradition.

Then in 1991, the Super Bowl came to town and the Gasparilla Parade was scheduled to take place the Saturday before the big game to showcase the city's biggest event to the world. Civil rights leaders saw the chance to shine an international spotlight on their campaign for equality.

The NFL was informed of the parade's exclusionary policies. Fearing embarrassment, the league and local leaders pressed the host krewe to open its ranks. Then-Mayor Freedman threatened to pull in-kind services provided by the city such as police security.

The krewe cancelled the event.

"I'm probably still not popular with some members for what I did," Freedman said last week. "But that's OK."

The city planned a substitute event, Bamboleo, a parade promoted as multi-cultural. It rained that day. The event bombed. "But something good came of it," Freedman said.

The Krewe of Gasparilla finally agreed to accept African-American men, asking two men to join — Monroe, then-general manager of Seagram Co.'s southern region, and the late Dr. Fred Reddy. Both said yes, but Monroe — who today counts his fellow krewe members among his close friends — was less than enthused about the offer.

"They said somebody has to do it and asked if I would just consider it," Monroe, 80, said. "I realized it was an opportunity to take another step toward bringing the city together."

The racially integrated Krewe of Gasparilla was joined in the 1992 parade by two new krewes — Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley, the first all-female group, and the Krewe of Libertalia, with a predominantly black roster that also included whites, Hispanics and women.

Today, there are 61 krewes.

Libertalia's captain Eddie Adams Jr. attributes the small number of African American members in the founding Krewe of Gasparilla to the option of joining krewes like his.

"When they see a black krewe in the parade, that's the one they want to join," Adams said. "There shouldn't be a quota for Gasparilla. Just an opportunity."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Otis Anthony in some references.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3320. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.