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

Members of the youth group known as the White Hats help disperse a crowd that gathered after a women was stabbed during a family argument. The White Hats, brought together by leaders of the black community, helped calm the Central Avenue area following the 1967 riots. [Times file]
Members of the youth group known as the White Hats help disperse a crowd that gathered after a women was stabbed during a family argument. The White Hats, brought together by leaders of the black community, helped calm the Central Avenue area following the 1967 riots. [Times file]
Published June 8, 2017

Blood trickling from his mouth, a bullet hole in his chest, the teenager leaned against a telephone pole, crying and begging for help.

The cop broke down in tears, swearing he only fired to wound the man — a suspect who was running from the scene of a store burglary.

Martin Chambers, 19, didn't live long afterward. But the days of rioting that followed his death seemed like they'd never end.

On June 11, 1967, flames and looting erupted along Central Avenue, hub of a thriving African-American community that once stretched from Ybor City to downtown — now site of the Encore mixed-income development.

DOCUMENTARY DEBUTS: A new film on the 1967 riots plays at the Saunders library.

The rioting lasted three days and it was weeks before calm was restored — with the help of courageous local youths who called themselves the White Hats.

It was a time when the civil rights movement in Tampa turned from peaceful to violent, when a celebrated black entertainment district was obliterated, and when the city joined a growing list of urban areas rattled by violent racial strife.

It's not a time for ceremony, this year's 50th anniversary. But it's not a time to be forgotten, either, historians and civil rights leaders say.

"That was a bad chapter in the struggle we call the fight for equality," said Delano Stewart, 81, the attorney who represented the family of the slain teen in a failed civil suit against the city. "It's a struggle I've always been a part of."

At the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library, named in honor of Tampa's late-NAACP leader, Stewart recently joined fellow Tampa civil rights leaders from the 1960s — Clarence Fort, 79, and Arthur McCarr, 78 — as well as Fred Hearns, 68, a chronicler of local African-American history.

There, they combed through a scrapbook detailing the tumultuous time, re-read a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report on the shooting, and lamented those dark days and all that led up to them.

Said Fort, an early organizer of peaceful civil rights demonstrations, "I feared sooner or later it was going to boil over."

• • •

Chronologically, Fort said, the riots started right after the shooting. But he insists the shooting didn't cause them.

Added attorney Stewart, "There are always going to be problems when you do not have power. The black community did not have power."

That sentiment was echoed as far away as Washington, when President Lyndon B. Johnson empaneled the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the urban riots of 1967.

The commission's findings included statistics from Tampa — no African-Americans had ever served on the Tampa City Council, the local school board or the fire department; 55 percent of black men worked at unskilled jobs; and 60 percent of the housing for black people was deemed "unsound."

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"We never forgot we were black men living in America," Stewart said.

In 1966, Stewart lasted just half a year as the first black assistant public defender in Hillsborough County history. He quit when he was passed over for a promotion by a white man fresh from law school.

Historian Hearns was 18 in 1967, a freshman at the University of South Florida and working as a janitor at Sears on East Hillsborough Avenue, now the site of the Erwin Technical College.

His white classmates working at Sears all were salespeople.

"One classmate asked if that was the job I applied for," Hearns said. "I said, 'No, this is the only job they had for me.' He didn't understand. He knew we were equals ... Then the riots came and I think that opened a lot of eyes."

It was early in the evening June 11 when, following a report of a burglary of a photo store, police spotted Chambers and two other young black men with the stolen goods. Police chased the suspects through the Central Park Village housing project.

The trio split up, leaving a trail of photo equipment valued at around $100.

One of the suspects, Edward Thomas, would later take all the blame for the break-in. He said Chambers met up with him afterward.

The other, Calvin Monroe, said they robbed the store together — Chambers included.

"He never had his day in court so we'll never know," Hearns said.

• • •

Officer James Calvert fired a shot at Chambers from 25 yards away.

He said he aimed for the teen's right shoulder but the bullet struck Chambers in the back and passed through his chest.

A crowd formed around the shooting scene.

"As they began to mill about and discuss the shooting, old grievances both real and imagined, were resurrected," reads a passage from the national commission's report.

Their anger spilled into the business district a few blocks away — Central Avenue, home to more than 100 shops and restaurants and often called the Harlem of the South for hosting the top black entertainers in the nation.

Arsonists meant to target just the white-owned Central Avenue Market but the flames engulfed at least three other buildings.

FDLE accounts of the riot include incidents where a mob of 400 rocked a police car, yelling, "Kill them," and a group of 100 threatened to torch bus barns.

Called in to end the riots were 500 Florida National Guardsmen, 235 Florida High Patrol troopers and 250 local law enforcement officers — all of whom, according to the national commission's report, refrained from firing a shot.

One law enforcement officer, Sgt. Don Williams of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, died from a heart attack.

Ultimately, what brought peace to Central Avenue were the people who lived there.

• • •

Attorney Stewart, Dr. J.O. Brookins and former Blake High School football coach Jim Williams pitched the idea to Sheriff Malcolm Beard of recruiting black youth — including the rioters — to walk the streets and encourage calm.

"I knew if we gave them power they'd use it right," Stewart said.

Named the White Hats for the color of the protective helmets they wore, their ranks numbered over 100. Carr Brazelton was not a looter but he worked alongside those who had been.

"They were given a chance to be leaders," said Brazelton, 72, who now lives in North Carolina. "That's what they wanted."

On June 14, the day after the riots ended, State Attorney Paul Antinori announced that a review had shown Officer Calvert was justified in shooting Chambers because the teen was a felon who failed to stop when ordered and because the death was accidental.

The White Hats disagreed but continued working to keep the peace.

A decade later, Central Avenue was razed, largely because of the damage from the riots.

In the years immediately following the riots, African-Americans in Tampa enjoyed improved employment opportunities, joining the ranks of firefighters and the city attorney's office.

Historian Hearns now struggles with how to remember those opportunities.

"The riot got everyone's attention and for the first time people in power were willing to listen to these young black men," he said.

"I don't want to think that's what was necessary. I don't want to think a young man had to die."

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.