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Epilogue: Otis Anthony, a civil rights leader and radio host, kept the conversation alive

On Friday, Mr. Anthony died. He was 68.
Otis Anthony started the Black History Research Project of Tampa in 1978. [Times (2008)]
Published Nov. 11
Updated Nov. 11

Otis Anthony believed in the power of stories.

You can hear it in his voice. The way he loses his train of thought when another, better anecdote comes to mind. The sharpness with which he recalls details about bit players in his life: friends, teachers, bosses. The fact that you can hear his story at all.

In 42 minutes that live on the Hillsborough County Public Library’s website, you can hardly hear him take a breath as he recounts his life in Tampa as an organizer, historian and civil rights leader.

Otis Anthony recorded his story in 2014.

On Friday, Mr. Anthony died. He was 68.

It’s not just his story he recorded for posterity. In the late 1970s, Mr. Anthony and a team of eight researchers recorded the memories of dozens of black residents into the Black History Research Project of Tampa. They shared stories of their lives growing up through segregation, sit-ins and the struggle for equality.

It is, even today, a not-too-distant era. Take Mr. Anthony. Born on August 7, 1951, he grew up in public housing across from what is today Howard W. Blake High School. He went to segregated schools, and grew up in segregated housing.

His parents, Bernice and Otis Sr., struggled to provide for Mr. Anthony and his eight brothers and sisters. But in the recorded interview about his life, Mr. Anthony remembered a happy childhood: Even though he had to tie rubber bands around his socks to keep them from falling around his ankles, a young Otis loved to dance.

He was always a visible figure around his community. When the school board threatened to close Mr. Anthony’s high school, Blake, which was then an all-black institution, the young leader made a passionate speech at a city march.

He’d learned public speaking at church, and he’d continue to do it the rest of his life. He was a man just as likely to perform poetry at an open mike night as he was to talk politics.

When Mr. Anthony moved on from Blake to the University of South Florida, he remained an advocate for civil rights and black stories.

Carolyn Stewart, a veteran Tampa lawyer, went to school with a young Otis Anthony. She remembers a well-read, handsome young man who liked to play the “black philosopher” to other students. His doctrine was one of political action.

“It wasn’t about being violent, but it was about not being passive,” Stewart said.

In college, Mr. Anthony met a young woman, Gloria Butts, whom he eventually married. Mr. Anthony graduated from USF in 1973, and that same year, the two young professionals had a daughter together, Ashaki Anthony.

Although the marriage didn’t last, Gloria and Otis Anthony shared a passion for public service that they passed on to their daughter. They each graduated with Masters degrees through the National Urban Fellowship program. Eventually, so did Ashaki.

Ashaki Anthony, who’s now a project manager for the city of Atlanta, remembered her father’s love of spice. The way it brightened his dishes and brought out their best flavors.

“I had the coolest dad,” she said in an interview. “A lot of kids didn’t want their parents to come around. If there was a birthday or something, I wanted my dad there.”

After a brief stint away for graduate school and a government job in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Anthony returned to Tampa in the 1980s. He took a job as the city’s solid waste director under Mayor Bob Martinez. After Martinez resigned to run for governor in 1986, Sandy Freedman completed his term and was twice elected mayor. She made Mr. Anthony an executive assistant.

“He was the closest we have ever had to an African-American mayor in the city of Tampa,” Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis said in an interview.

The relationship between Mayor Freedman and Mr. Anthony eventually soured. After Freedman fired Mr. Anthony in 1994 for allegedly shirking his duties, he filed a complaint against her in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination. A judge eventually ruled that race was not a factor in Mr. Anthony’s firing. Freedman declined to comment for this story.

Mr. Anthony later told the then-St. Petersburg Times he remembered his time in Freedman’s office as “seven glorious years."

Mr. Anthony spent much of the rest of his career working with kids. He took jobs at the Hillsborough County and Polk County School Districts, and worked for a couple of years at Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

In 2013, ever a believer in the power of politics, he dabbled in campaign consulting with his firm, Anthony Community Consultant, Inc.

And, he hosted a radio show. Starting in 2002, he was a mainstay of WMNF-FM 88.5 Sunday mornings with his program, Sunday Forum, where he discussed local and national issues.

Whether he agreed with you or not, Otis Anthony lived for the discussion, said Walter Smith Jr., who eventually succeeded him as the show’s host. Smith recalled a piece of advice his mentor gave him before he handed over the reins.

“Brother, listen,” Smith remembered Mr. Anthony telling him, “You cannot have any blank air.”

Otis Anthony was no fan of blank air.

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