TAMPA — The six men and women honored Thursday on the Tampa Riverwalk's Historical Monument Trail lived at different times, fought for different causes and confronted different challenges, but they had one thing in common.
Faced with hardship, they didn't flinch.
One lost a job after demanding equal pay for black and white teachers. One mortgaged her home to bring music and opera to Tampa. One saw fellow doctors try to ban him from Tampa General Hospital because he treated everyone. One shrugged off repeated threats on his life.
Take, for example, the last example, civil rights attorney Francisco A. Rodriguez Jr., who lived from 1916 to 1988.
A World War II veteran of Okinawa, he sued to get black teens new textbooks and athletic equipment, not the tattered hand-me-downs schools tried to pass off to them. He saved two Lake County men from the electric chair after a deputy confessed to making up rape evidence against them. He once woke up then-Gov. Leroy Collins in the middle of the night to free a wrongly accused teenager from jail.
And he didn't care if others objected.
"Mr. Rodriguez was never, ever afraid," said his widow, Beatrice Rodriguez, 81, of Tampa. "Any time we got a call they'd say what they were going to do, and he'd say, 'Come on over. I'll be here when you get here.' "
Now Rodriguez and five others are being honored with bronze busts on the Riverwalk recounting their lives and contributions to the city. The others are:
• Meroba Hooker Crane (1845-1898). A Civil War widow who owned the Orange Grove Hotel, Crane led efforts to preserve the historic Oaklawn cemetery and establish the forerunner of Tampa General, the city's first hospital, after a yellow fever epidemic sickened a third of the city's residents in 1887 and killed up to 300, or about one-tenth of Tampa's population.
• Edward Daniel Davis (1904-1989). Tampa's first black educator with a graduate degree, Davis became a school principal in Tampa. During World War II he helped bring a class-action lawsuit seeking equal pay for black teachers, who were paid about half as much as their white counterparts. Davis' side won, but he was fired by Ocala school officials, where he worked at the time, so he left education, eventually returned to Tampa and became president of Central Life Insurance Co.
• Ignacio Haya (1842-1906). His firm was the first to roll cigars in Ybor City, starting April 13, 1886, and the capital he brought to Tampa prevented the only bank in the city from closing. He was the founding president of El Centro Espanol, a mutual aid society that operated a hospital and cemetery for its Spanish immigrant members.
• Norma Tina Russo (1902-1977). Known as Tampa's "first lady of opera," Russo was born in Naples, Italy, began training as a soprano when she was 15 and studied with the same teacher as Enrico Caruso. After moving to Tampa in 1932, she taught music through the Works Progress Administration and produced operas, sometimes mortgaging her own house to bring in the talent she wanted.
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• Dr. Mack Ramsey Winton (1874-1969). A Tennessee-born white surgeon, Winton treated black and Spanish-speaking patients, charging them no more than they could afford, established the first hospital on the west coast of Florida that admitted black patients and sponsored the education of Tampa's first black credentialed nurse. When he became medical director of Centro Espanol's hospital, some white doctors tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent him from practicing at the taxpayer-supported Tampa General Hospital. He continued to see patients into his 90s.
The busts cost about $25,000 and are being paid for with contributions raised by the private, nonprofit Friends of the Riverwalk. They were unveiled Thursday as relatives and descendents of those honored looked on.
"I was just trying to hold back tears," Mrs. Rodriguez said.
"These monuments spread along the Riverwalk tell the story of Tampa," said attorney Steve Anderson, who chairs the Historical Monument Trail. "These are people who never did anything with the thought of being famous or being remembered 100 years later. These are people who were just doing the right thing."
Since 2012, the Friends of the Riverwalk has installed 18 other busts of local pioneers selected by a committee of historians.
To qualify, the person has to have been dead for at least 15 years, must have lived in the city or Hillsborough County and must have made a significant impact on the community. Previous honorees have included the mound-building Native Americans in the bay area before the arrival of Europeans, plus early leaders in shipping, nursing, women's rights, publishing, railroads, philanthropy, the creation of Ybor City and the Cuban independence movement.
"They built a city," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "It's important that we remember how we got here, because if we don't, we can't possibly move forward."
Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Danielson_Times