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Civil rights exhibit comes to Tampa’s Sulphur Springs Heritage Museum

‘Civil Rights in the Sunshine State’ chronicles the story of civil rights in Florida from the end of Reconstruction through the Jim Crow era of segregation and the struggle for voting rights.

SULPHUR SPRINGS — Tucked behind the Springs Theatre along the banks of the Hillsborough River, a new exhibit housed in the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center tells stories that should not be forgotten, museum director Norma Robinson said.

The “Civil Rights in the Sunshine State” exhibit, created in 2014 by the Museum of Florida History and on loan to the museum until April, chronicles the story of civil rights in Florida from the end of the Reconstruction era through the Jim Crow era of segregation and the struggle for voting rights.

“It brings to memory some things that have been forgotten,” Robinson said. “I think it’s important for our young people now to sort of remember ... that this has been an ongoing thing for years in the U.S. with race relationships."

A timeline takes visitors from the passing of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in 1865, through the formation of the first NAACP chapter in Tampa in 1917 to the assassination of Florida NAACP secretary Harry Moore in 1951.

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The exhibit tells stories about the Ku Klux Klan’s start in Tallahassee in 1866 by a group of Confederate veterans with the stated mission to “play pranks” on African Americans. Florida had the nation’s highest per capita lynching rate from the 1890s to 1930s. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, active chapters of the Klan, now classified as a hate group, still exist in Florida.

The exhibit also tells the stories of the labor unions that strengthened the rights of African American workers during the Reconstruction era, as well as the work of activists in Tallahassee, Miami and Jacksonville in the early 1960s, who staged peaceful sit-ins at businesses that maintained “whites only” lunch counters.

Cindy Danicourt, from St. Petersburg, visits an exhibit titled Civil Rights in the Sunshine State at the Sulphur Springs Museum, at 1101 E. River Cove St. in Tampa. The Civil Rights in the Sunshine State exhibit runs until April. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

The exhibit also chronicles “wade-ins,” or the movement to end segregated beaches. Wealthy black citizens bought property along the coast and developed their own beaches. In St. Petersburg, an area south of The Pier, formerly known as the South Mole, was the only area along the Tampa Bay coastline where nonwhite residents were allowed until 1959, when the city reopened Spa Beach and Pool.

The beach had been closed several times and black residents were denied entry in 1955 by the White Citizens’ Council, a pro-segregation group described in the exhibit as a “middle class, less violent Ku Klux Klan." A federal court ruled in 1956 that blacks should have equal use of the facility, owned by the city of St. Petersburg. The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review an appeal by the city.

A look at an exhibit titled Civil Rights in the Sunshine State at the Sulphur Springs Museum, at 1101 E. River Cove St. The exhibit runs until April. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

Antoinette Jackson, a University of South Florida anthropology professor who has been working on a Sulphur Springs Heritage project with her students, said Sulphur Springs itself plays into the civil rights narrative. It is often referred to fondly during its heyday — memories of the pool and arcade, mall and the art deco theatre. But they’re not memories all citizens were allowed to experience.

“People often glorified the swimming pool or arcade without realizing for someone else that might not have been a nice memory,” she said.

Still, Jackson said, there is room for nuance in remembering the area’s history. Many of the older black residents she’s interviewed for her research said they don’t think of their own stories as marginalized, in spite of segregation.

“They were still living their lives and doing other good things,” she said. “There needs to be a better distribution of different experiences in different communities that should be a part of the story. Sometimes that nuance gets lost.”

Creating spaces for more complicated histories and uncomfortable conversations, Jackson said, is helpful for making sure history is not buried. That tends to happen, she said, when people risk feeling either marginalized or guilty.

The worst thing to do is not talk about it,” Jackson said. "Talk about the feelings, the history ... We keep those wounds right under the surface until something happens.”

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Robinson said the exhibit is important in providing context.

“I think it’s important to know that a lot of people through history have worked unknowingly together to make changes in the U.S.,” Robinson said. "I mean, that’s how it came about.”