TAMPA, Fla. — Civil rights movements were popping up across the United States during the late 1950s and 1960s.
“What would Tampa look like to the world if we didn’t find a way to peacefully settle this matter,” said Arthenia Joyner.
Tampa was a tale of two cities in the late 1950s. A white Tampa. And a black Tampa.
Under Mayor Julian B. Lane’s direction, Tampa formed a Bi-Racial Committee in 1959. Mayor Lane named Attorney Cody Fowler as chairman.
“It was formed specifically to solve the problems arising out of the civil rights movement and coordinating whatever efforts between private capital and the city,” said Andrew Huse, Assistant Librarian of Florida Studies at USF Libraries.
Although the Bi-Racial Committee was comprised of notable people, students from Middleton and Blake High Schools ended up being the key to integration talks. On February 29, 1960 Joyner and a group of students protested racial discrimination with a sit-in at Woolworth.
“When we said we wanted to be served then the counter closed,” Joyner said. “We might have had some fear but we didn’t show any.”
Tampa’s Woolworth sit-in became the catalyst for compromise. However, historians aren’t sugarcoating the motivation.
“It was about not wanting to scare away Yankee tourists,” Huse said.
Florida governor Leroy Collins made a speech on race relations on March 20, 1960 following violence across the state. In his solution for peace, he called on all cities to create their own Bi-Racial Committees. Although many adults are named in the history books, teenagers were the foot soldiers in the fight for civil rights.
“When you’re young and idealistic and you want to make a change and you know that this is not the way you’re supposed to be treated, then you take the bold step and that’s what we did,” Joyner said.
After the sit-in, Tampa's Bi-Racial Committee held negotiation talks with department stores in the area. In September of 1960, 18 major stores in Tampa were peacefully integrated.