On March 29, 1960, a crowd of 30 high school students hungry for more than just sandwiches marched to a lunch counter in downtown Tampa. Led by NAACP Youth Council President Clarence Fort, the march ended at F.W. Woolworths — the site of Tampa Bay’s first-ever sit-in.
Inspired by similar protests in Greensborough, N.C., Fort knew the group wouldn’t be served. The employees shut down the counter and turned off the lights, but the students stayed until closing.
Nearly 50 years later, Fort stood in front of the boarded-up storefront of what was F.W. Woolworth’s, reflecting on the day he and the students of Middleton and Blake high schools made history.
“This is where it all got started,” he said. “After the media covered our sit-in attempts, other protests started to spring up in other counties — but we were the very first.”
Fort said he considers himself lucky to have lived in a progressive city like Tampa.
“We had a very liberal mayor, and he didn’t want the problems associated with the protests of other cities — like using dogs and water hoses to end them,” he said.
The worst he had to deal with were threats and one instance of being spat on — relatively small prices to pay for equality, he said.
Clearwater’s Saint Paul AME Church aided in the recruitment of the sitters and served as a meeting place before the march, but the initial idea was that of 20-year-old Fort.
“Actually, the adults told us not to do it. They stayed out of things like this for the most part, but if ever someone was in trouble, they would come to their rescue or defense,” Fort said.
Woolworth’s and other local stores began to integrate in September of that year, and more progress was soon to follow.
“When we came back here for our 10 year re-enactment, the restaurant manager was black,” Fort said. “It was amazing to see the progress made in just 10 years.”
This was only the first of Fort’s contributions to the Tampa area. In 1968, working for the National Trailways Bus System, he became the first black bus driver in Florida. He said the same persistence he showed in the 1960 protests helped him land the job.
“I had to go by the Trailways bus station seven times before they’d even give me an application,” he said.
In 1981, he began working for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. He retired from law enforcement in 2001 but remains an active member of the community. Fort is credited with founding downtown Tampa’s Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Just like the sit-ins, the parade began at St. Paul AME, where Dr. King himself once preached.
Fort also leads a youth group at his church, the New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church of Tampa.
“We take kids of all ages and teach them life skills and lessons that they might not necessarily get at school or at home,” Fort said, adding that he is very proud of the group, which boasts a 95 percent high school graduation rate.
Fort’s impact on his community is obvious. As he walked down the streets of Tampa, people greeted him by his first name. When a homeless man stopped him to ask for change, Fort took out his wallet without hesitation and then offered some advice that helped him get where he is today.
“Giving back or making a difference in your community is one of the most rewarding things in life,” he said. “And it’s never too early to start.”