So it’s June of 1967, fifty years ago this month. Tampa, Florida is a bustling Southern town.
This town on the Gulf coast, not yet a major city, is so different from Miami Beach and Ft. Lauderdale which were experiencing rapid growth with the influx of retiring New Yorkers.
No. Tampa was still a Southern town with one exception. While it was populated by typical Southern whites and blacks living apart and in separate worlds, it also had thousands of Cubans and Italians working in the major industry – making cigars.
My uncle Earnest Lafragola got a job with Havatampa Cigars when he got out of the Navy after the Korean war.
The immigrants too lived in their own world. I mean, were they white people? Southern whites didn’t quite think so; and the black community knew they weren’t black. For the most part however the immigrants and blacks got along better than the immigrants and whites.
By 1967 there had been a number of major “race riots” in the United States and Lyndon Johnson, as a result passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Notwithstanding, not much had changed. Housing patterns were very much segregated and economic opportunity for minorities simply didn’t exist in the wider world.
The black community was self contained, trying to take care of its own in Tampa. And the community revolved around Central Avenue.
The opening of the first library on Central Avenue
Central Avenue was a hub of more than 100 stores and restaurants within shouting distance of mainly white downtown. Its nightclubs and beer gardens drew some of the all-time-great blues, jazz and soul entertainers, including a young Ray Charles. Central Avenue was the Harlem of the South complete with it’s own equivalent of the Cotton Club.
Underneath, the fact that one sixth of Tampa’s 350,000 were black, no African-Americans had ever served on the Tampa City Council, the local school board or the fire department; 55 percent of black men worked at unskilled jobs; and 60 percent of the housing for black people was deemed “unsound.”
One bullet would change all that – and Central Avenue as well.
Group of African-American ladies dining at the Central Hotel
It was early in the evening June 11, 1967 when, following a report of a burglary of a photo store, police spotted three young black men with the stolen goods. Police chased the suspects through the Central Park Village housing project.
The trio split up, leaving a trail of photo equipment valued at around $100.
One of the teens, Martin Chambers was shot in the back by a white police officer from 25 yards away.
Chambers, who was unarmed, died later at the hospital . Chambers’ last words: ‘Get me to a hospital, please, mister.’ He had a dime and a nickel in his pockets.
News of the shooting and death quickly spread and soon violence erupted in the Central Avenue corridor. In Tampa, Chambers’ death was the trigger for the most destructive riot in the south.
“The days of rioting that followed his death seemed like they’d never end.”
On June 11, 1967, flames and looting erupted along Central Avenue, hub of the thriving African-American community that stretched from Ybor City to downtown.
The rioting lasted three days and it was weeks before calm was restored — with the help of courageous local youths who called themselves the White Hats. Before the three days of rioting ended, 500 Florida National Guardsmen, 235 Florida Highway Patrol troopers and 250 local law enforcement officers had been called to duty.
The day after her son was shot, Janie Bell Chambers confronted Gov. Claude Kirk when he visited the riot scene. ‘Right must prevail, and justice must prevail,’ she told him. A few days later, Chambers collapsed when Hillsborough County State Attorney Paul Antinori said an inquiry had found the Officer was justified in shooting her son. Antinori’s seven-page report said ‘this was the only means to prevent the complete escape of Chambers.’
He had failed to stop on command.
The decline of Central Avenue began that night in June fifty years ago. A decade later, Central Avenue was razed, largely because of the damage from the riots.
In the years immediately following the riots, African-Americans in Tampa enjoyed improved employment opportunities, joining the ranks of firefighters and the city attorney’s office.
The tragedy of Chamber’s death and the riots served as catalysts in opening more jobs and better housing to African Americans, according to local historian Fred Hearns, an East Tampa resident who was a freshman a the University of South Florida in 1967.
Still, Hearns said, despite the progress, conditions that led to the riots a half century ago remain prevalent today.
“I think racism is the number one problem that impacts progress of large groups of people,” said Hearns, who worked 33 years in the city’s Community Affairs department before retiring as its director in 2007.
“It’s still with us today.”
Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015, according to the findings of a Guardian study that recorded a final tally of 1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers in 2015.
Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged that year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.
Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.
Riots continued in that long, hot Summer of 1967 – in Newark, Detroit and Cincinnati. Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes and recommend corrective actions.
The report’s most famous passage warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
While the 400+ page report became a best seller, Johnson ignored it.
As for Central Avenue, it was paved over by the Interstate. But we put up a nice plaque.