LISTEN LIVE

Historical Marker Commemorates Tampa's Lunch Counter Sit-In

May 18, 2018

To many people, the F.W. Woolworth building on East Franklin Street looks like just another empty red brick building abundant in that area of downtown Tampa.

But when 79-year-old Clarence Fort passes by the building, he remembers walking in to the department store in 1960 with more than two dozen high school students and demanding to be served at the lunch counter. The Woolworth sit-in is credited with spurring civil rights actions across Hillsborough County.

A new historical marker in front of the building will ensure that residents and visitors see the vacant building like Fort does: as a place where a movement was sparked. The marker will be unveiled at a ceremony on Saturday, May 19 at the corner of North Franklin and East Polk streets.

"You can see these movements around the country right now where young people are stepping up," he said. "That's important and it's important for them to know what our history was so that we can leave a legacy and they can do the same."

The Woolworth lunch counter sit-in began on Feb. 29, 1960 and lasted for a week. Fort was the local NAACP Youth Council leader at the time. Working with the student body presidents of Blake and Middleton High School, Fort led the students into Woolworth store.

"When we sat down they closed the counters and turned all the lights out," Fort said. "We stood outside for about 20 minutes, they turned the lights back on and we went back in and sat down again."

Unlike sit-ins across the South, the Woolworth sit-in in Tampa was not violent. Tampa Mayor Julian B. Lane had assigned police officers to escort the students and formed the Bi-racial Committee to facilitate peaceful integration.

Still, Fort said, it was not easy for demonstrators.

"I had one white guy spit on my shoulder as I was walking out of the door and the ones sitting at the counter got up and left," he said. "After a week they brought me in and said 'We'll integrate, just give us some time.'"

The Woolworth sit-in was Fort's first demonstration as part of the civil rights movement. He led or participated in numerous actions after that, including efforts to integrate the Tampa Theater, beaches, and other public places throughout Hillsborough County.

Rodney Kite-Powell, Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center, said lunch counters throughout the county integrated quickly after the Woolworth sit-in. Full integration, however, would take more than a decade.

"The lunch counters were integrated, but still at that point African Americans couldn't go into the department store and try on clothing," he said. "Movie theaters and schools were some of the last places to be integrated in Tampa. The Woolworth sit-in was certainly a big step, but there were many steps that needed to be taken."

One demonstrator at the Woolworth sit-in was a 17-year-old Blake High School student named Arthenia Joyner. She went on to be a sitting state congresswoman for nearly 20 years.

Joyner, Fort and other activists will speak at Saturday's unveiling ceremony.