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Film by USF professor explores how 1967 riot transformed Tampa

A white-helmeted member of the Tampa Youth Patrol watches as a crowd gathers around a woman stabbed in a domestic quarrel. Several members of the patrol took charge and quickly moved the crowd along. 

TAMPA — The year 1967 was a turbulent one for the United States, and high temperatures and emotions led to rioting in several cities that summer, including Detroit, Newark, Minneapolis — and Tampa.

Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Chambers, a black teenager shot in the back by white city police officer James Calvert. The shooting triggered a two-day riot that brought changes to the Central Avenue neighborhood where it occurred and to all of Tampa.

A new documentary by University of South Florida professor Travis Bell uses vintage photographs and interviews to examine how the 1967 riots and other social forces contributed to Central Avenue's transformation.

Tampa Technique: Rise, Demise, and Remembrance of Central Avenue will debut at 6 p.m. Saturday (June 10) at Robert Saunders Library, 1505 N Nebraska Ave., in Tampa.

Bell, a former newsman, said the subject of the film is much different from what he originally planned. He was doing unrelated research when he stumbled on a trove of information about the riots.

"The more I started learning about the event of '67, I started learning about what caused it," he said.

At the time, historic advances had been made with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Still, housing and job discrimination, a lack of economic opportunities, and overt racism against African Americans persisted.

Conditions were ripe in 1967 for an explosion of unrest in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, Bell said.

"All of those tensions is what set everything off," he said.

In Tampa, Chambers' death was the trigger for the most destructive riot in the south, Bell said.

Chambers was one of three suspects being chased by Calvert following a burglary at the Tampa Photo Supply Warehouse.

The officer, according to police records, was aiming for Chambers's shoulder when he fired off a round but instead hit him in the back.

Chambers, who was unarmed, died later at the hospital. News of the shooting and death quickly spread and soon violence erupted in the Central Avenue corridor.

A neighborhood-based effort to quell the violence proved effective and calm finally fell over the city two weeks later.

But the film explores a central question: Did the riots and the response accelerate Central Avenue's demise as a haven for Tampa's African American community?

"There's no exact timeline when Central Avenue died," Bell said. "It wasn't just one thing. Central didn't just die in that moment."

The tragedy of Chamber's death and the riots served as catalysts in opening more jobs and better housing to African Americans, according to local historian Fred Hearns, an East Tampa resident who was a freshman a the University of South Florida in 1967.

Still, Hearns said, despite the progress, conditions that led to the riots a half century ago remain prevalent today.

"I think racism is the number one problem that impacts progress of large groups of people," said Hearns, who worked 33 years in the city's Community Affairs department before retiring as its director in 2007, he said. "It's still with us today."

Contact Kenya Woodard at