A new dramatic play depicts Tampa's civil rights lunch counter protests in 1960
Stageworks Theatre presents on Friday the world premiere of "When the Righteous Triumph," a drama about the lunch counter protests that took place at Tampa's F.W. Woolworth Department Store on the corner of North Franklin and East Polk Streets starting on Feb. 29, 1960.
Clarence Fort, who is now 85 years old, was a 20-year-old barber when he organized the sit-ins, recruiting high school students to attempt being served at the all-white lunch counter. He was also the new president of Tampa's NAACP Youth Council.
“I went out to the African American high schools, which was Middleton on the east side of town, and Howard W. Blake on the west side of town,” Fort said, “and then we just started recruiting youngsters from each school.”
The plan was to meet at St. Paul AME Church, and march to the department store downtown a few blocks away where they would sit at the lunch counters quietly.
“We had the idea that they were not going to serve us, so we sit there for about 30 minutes. When we sat down at first, they closed the counters, turned all the lights off, so we got up and left and went outside and stood around,” Fort said. “They cut the lights on and we went back inside, so we sit down again for about another 20 minutes … they cut them off again, and then we left and marched back down to the church.”
Fort recalled that as he was walking out of the door, a young white male spit on his shoulder.
“It didn't faze me. I expected more than that actually, expected a little more violence, but it didn't occur in Tampa because of the makeup of the city fathers and the African American community leadership,” Fort said.
The three days of sit-ins were followed by tense negotiations between Rev. A. Leon Lowry of the local NAACP and downtown store owners.
After about a week, the mayor of Tampa at the time, Julian Lane, appointed a biracial committee to discuss segregation issues, and then by September 1960, the city's lunch counters were integrated, which Fort said made him feel “great.”
“Once they were integrated, we had to actually give the kids money. They didn't have money to eat really,” he said, “and we had two African Americans to eat at every lunch counter in the county, which was quite a few, so we had to recruit adults to actually do it.”
Mark E. Leib, an assistant professor of writing at the University of South Florida, is behind the script for the play depicting this time in Tampa’s history.
“There were really two forces working on me to write the play. The first one you might call spiritual. I'm Jewish, and I do a lot of study of Jewish texts. And as I have done that, I've realized that social justice is supposed to be on at the upper-most of our minds as we go about our daily business,” Leib said. “Meanwhile, my wife Elizabeth has been trying to urge me for a long time to write about Tampa because I lived for 20 years up in the Boston area, and a lot of my plays and stories were set in the Northeast.”
Leib did extensive research to write this play by interviewing those who lived it, and reading archival newspapers and books.
“I even ended up reading some books that had interviews with Klan members since the Klan was responsible for much of the opposition to the sit-ins,” Leib said. “I think the first thing I learned was how terrible race relations were in the early 1960s in Tampa.”
If you were an African American in Tampa in February 1960, you were not allowed in movie theaters, public beaches, playgrounds, the zoo, most restaurants, and the downtown lunch counters.
“What was ironic was during the sit-ins, the Tribune ran an editorial, and it said 'race relations in our city have been good.' I just thought that was kind of ironic, let's put it mildly, because they weren't very good if you were an African American. They might have looked good to a white person sitting in a newspaper office somewhere,” Leib said.
There’s a culture war going on right now, Leib said, and that Florida is especially at a breaking point with the state eliminating an AP course on Black history and going after diversity in education overall.
“The question is, will we move forward, or will we move backwards? And I hope this play will send us a little bit further forward,” Leib said.
He said he hopes viewers will walk away realizing that these events only occurred 60 years ago.
“I want people in Tampa to understand that this history is not so long ago, and that we haven't gone the whole distance yet. We've got a further way to go. And I'd like the white audience to feel more empathy for their Black fellows. And I'd like the Black audience to feel somewhat relieved that their struggle has not been forgotten,” he said.
As for Fort, who later became Florida’s first African American long-distance bus driver and then spent 20 years as a sheriff’s deputy for Hillsborough County, he said he hopes people take away from his story that anything is possible if you put forth the effort.
“They will learn the sacrifices that we made in order to make things better for them, and by them seeing that maybe it will even increase their knowledge of what things that they can do,” Fort said.
As an example of his accomplishments, Fort remembered being a Trailways bus driver.
“I had the opportunity to make African Americans feel proud, just to see me on that bus at that particular time when all they had ever done was ride a bus driven by a white driver. And to see me was an eye opener and the proud showing on their faces was just unbelievable,” Fort said.
“And one of my proudest moments were I was pulling a schedule from Jacksonville to Tampa, and I came through my small hometown, just out of Gainesville, and my mom and dad was able to catch my bus and ride to Tampa on it. And that was a proud moment for me and for them. My mom told everyone who got on the bus, ‘that's my son.’ And it meant a lot.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the city of Tampa honored Fort by dedicating a public park and trail in his name.
When the Righteous Triumph will be performed weekends from March 17 – April 2, 2023, at Stageworks Theatre in Tampa.
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