TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Feb. 29 marks 60 years since a pivotal time in race relations in Tampa.
On that day in 1960 and for five days after, dozens of students from Middleton and Blake High School held sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter in Downtown Tampa.
The building is located at 801 Franklin Street and at the corner now, is a memorial marker telling what took place that day.
Those students were led by then 21-year-old Clarence Fort.
“At the time I was actually president of the NAACP Youth Council and once they did it up in North Carolina, I said we have the same problem here… we can go in and spend money but we can’t sit down and eat,” Fort said.
Initially, Fort didn’t tell everyone what was about to happen.
“The first day when we had the students to meet at St. Paul A.M.E. Church, we didn’t tell them what we were going to do. I just said follow my lead because I didn’t know how they were going to react,” he said.
He knew he had to be vigilant to keep it peaceful.
“I had to constantly walk back and forth down the counter to tell them to be calm. We had one lady when they put the closed sign in front of her, she shoved it across the counter. I said, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that.'”
Fort told News Channel 8’s Rod Carter he was somewhat afraid.
“I was in the sense, I was just hoping… you have to take a chance and do what you have to do. Some things you just can’t worry about,” he said.
There were initially 40 students involved in the protest. That number swelled to hundreds in the days that followed. So much so, many students held a similar sit-in at another location downtown.
On Friday, a small group gathered at the former five and dime to remember and reflect.
In the backdrop, a moving billboard bearing images of their courageous efforts.
“We just wanted to make sure that the story is still being told because it’s a very important part of our history,” said Cheryl Cusseaux, who organized Friday’s event.
Former State Senator Arthenia Joyner was among those who sat down to stand up for her rights in 1960. She was 17 years old at the time.
“We had some trepidation, but we were headstrong as young people. We were going to make a statement that we wanted to be treated like everyone else,” said Joyner. “And there was some underlying fear you know. You saw people and you didn’t know what they wanted to do and you know it was a big crowd. It was mixed and we knew that there were some people in the crowd who thought black people needed to stay in their place.”
Their protest was non-violent and thanks to a great relationship between the city’s black leaders and the mayor, it was peaceful.
“After seeing all the changes around the country, I feel good… feeling like I had something to do with that change,” Fort said.
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