Local civil rights activist dies

Shirley Lowry first met her husband, Rev. A. Leon Lowry, as he walked down the halls of a school she taught at – a school that had been named in his honor. Mrs. Lowry remembers him snapping pictures of the children and playfully disturbing her classroom.

What follows is a tale of love ripped from the silver screen. Rev. Lowry’s first action of interest was an offer to mentor Mrs. Lowry’s children, she said. After a storybook courtship and two proposals, she finally accepted and they were married in 2000. She was 39, he was 87.

“He was always so formal and proper,” she said about her husband. “Unlike most other people, I got to know him as a man before I found out all the wonderful things he’d done in his life.”

Rev. Lowry lectured on many occasions at USF and also was involved in the formation of USF’s Institute on Black Life. He also taught Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College and was later influential in bringing King to speak in Tampa for the first time.

“(Lowry) believed in everybody having knowledge,” said Mrs. Lowry. “He wanted a continuing education – no matter how old you are, you still need to be learning.”

“He was a catalyst for change in terms of diversity,” said Juel Smith, who worked with Lowry to found the USF Institute on Black Life. “Diversity for Rev. Lowry did not mean lowering standards, but it meant inclusion. He felt that USF should be a resource to the community.”

Rev. Lowry was also a pivotal civil rights activist locally, regionally and on a national level. He was an ordained minister and pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in Lutz for nearly four decades. Lowry was the first African-American elected to the Hillsborough County School Board, and he organized early sit-ins in the Tampa Bay area. He served as the Florida state president of the NAACP beginning in 1957.

Rev. Lowry passed away Aug. 20 at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

“His greatest achievement to me was helping all people to be free,” said Mrs. Lowry, who added that reaching and educating children was one of his favorite ways to make a difference.

“He used young people to do the sit-ins because it’s easier to be able to make a difference in a child,” she said.

Sam Horton, president of the Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP, explained how Lowry was able to organize students in successful sit-ins, particularly in the downtown Tampa area where “10-cent stores” were once segregated.

“He was able to organize the students to have sit-ins downtown, but he was also behind the scenes. Realizing they might go to jail, Rev. Lowry had people who had money and were ready to bail them out,” Horton said.

“He was a life member of the NAACP and I try to emulate him. The thing that stands out most to me was his statesmanship. After all the shouting, the protests and the marching, somebody has got to sit down and make some resolution out of it. Rev. Lowry was able to do that sort of thing.”

In regards to Rev. Lowry’s contributions to USF, Smith said, “He gave so much not only of himself, but he gave of his time, his talent and his resources. He was a true advocate for the students and for education. Rev. Lowry would be so proud to see USF ranked as 18th, because he really helped lay the foundation for diversity at USF.”

Horton pointed out what, in his eyes, was best about Rev. Lowry.

“His respect for all humanities. He was able to walk between two camps and he was genuinely interested in all people.”

Admittedly a “very private person,” Mrs. Lowry is keeping her promise to her late husband. “I promised him I would keep his legacy alive always. He’s done so much and I was privileged to be married to such a great man. He was such an intellectual genius and he was truly a servant; he served mankind.”