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Civil rights leader James Hammond, whose 'legacy will live on for generations,' dead at 89

James Hammond liked to joke that he had hundreds of children.

He was counting all the students who attend Hammond Elementary, the school named for him in 2006 and where he volunteered.

But history will remember him as a man whose legacy extends far beyond the walls of the Odessa school.

Mr. Hammond was at the forefront of the battle for civil rights in the Tampa Bay area during the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s.

He later brought affordable housing, economic opportunities and quality education to underserved communities.

"He stood up to racists and bigots at a time when not a lot of people were standing up to those folks," said Fred Hearns, a student of Tampa's African American history. "He had unbelievable courage."

Mr. Hammond died on Wednesday. He was 89.

"He'd want to be remembered as someone who made a difference in Tampa," son Gary Hammond said. "He was always thinking of ways to make things better, to help the community."

Among his accomplishments was serving as a peacemaker during an ugly chapter in Tampa history.

Mr. Hammond was hired in 1965 as Tampa's first director of the Commission on Community Relations, charged with the monumental task of bringing about racial equality.

Two years later, when a Tampa police officer shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager suspected of robbing a photo store, people rioted in the black community along Central Avenue.

The violence lasted three days and it took two weeks for calm to be restored.

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

Hearns said it would have been worse if not for the work of Mr. Hammond.

"Jim and his very small staff were in the streets trying to bring peace," Hearns said, "trying to make sure that law enforcement and firemen could do their jobs."

For those efforts, Mr. Hammond received the Governor's Medal for community service.

The day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, Mr. Hammond and Tampa's NAACP president Bob Gilder met with Mayor Dick Greco to demand more racial equality in city employment.

That meeting resulted in the creation of a program to train African-Americans for city jobs. In 1969, as many as 60 African-Americans were hired for administrative positions.

READ MORE: In death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired change around Tampa Bay

While leading the Commission of Community Relations, Mr. Hammond helped create the county's first preschool program.

Calling him a "civil rights icon," attorney and fellow activist Delano Stewart said Mr. Hammond "penetrated areas that black men prior to him had not been able to penetrate."

He preached what he called the "Three P's," said daughter Lisa Hammond — patience, persistence and positive thinking.

The children at Hammond Elementary got the message, said principal Sheri Norkas said.

"He did not miss an opportunity to attend chorus concerts and other events to have the opportunity to interact with families," Norkas said. "He would tell the students to repeat after him, and they happily repeated, 'I will be somebody.'"

Born in 1929, Mr. Hammond graduated from Middleton High School. He received a degree in electrical vocational engineering from Virginia's Hampton University.

He served with the U.S. Army in Germany and England, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and became Tampa's first African-American, licensed, class-A electrical contractor.

"He was adamant that he served his country so was going to participate in this country," Stewart said. "I have a great deal of admiration for what he did."

In a 1978 interview for the University of South Florida's Oral History Program, Mr. Hammond said his civil rights efforts started in the 1950s when he "became indignant at the fact that no blacks could use" the county's white libraries.

He formed the Young Adults for Progressive Action that grew into the backbone of the Tampa area's civil rights movement. With the NAACP, they integrated Tampa's downtown businesses.

"That organization was composed of anybody that was interested in trying to do away with discrimination," Mr. Hammond said. "Part of our motto was, 'Now is the time to change things.'"

He helped bring further change in 1987 when he founded the nonprofit Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan to eliminate economic, social and educational disparities.

READ MORE: Founder helps Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan bring his vision to reality

Mr. Hammond "was a pioneer, businessman, and community advocate who fought for change," THAP said in a news release this week. "We honor you for a life and legacy of service to your community."

Under his leadership, THAP developed affordable housing and, via business incubators, helped improve the economies in low income areas, said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP.

"There is an old proverb that says if you give a man a fish you can feed him for a day but if you teach a man to fish you can feed him for a lifetime," Lewis said. "He taught this community to fish. His legacy is so strong that it will live on for generations and generations."

BIOGRAPHY

James Hammond

Born: Nov. 11, 1929

Died: May 1, 2019

Survivors: Sons Kevin Hammond, Gary Hammond and Kerrick Williams, and daughter Lisa Hammond.

Services: A celebration of life will be held 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, May 10, at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, 1006 W Cypress St. A funeral will be held at the church 11 a.m. Saturday, May 11.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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