University of South Florida

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring some of Tampa’s heroes

By Charles J. Lockwood, MD, MHCM
Executive Vice President, USF Health
Dean, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I want to pause to honor some of Tampa’s own heroes in the long fight for racial justice and human dignity – heroes who transformed Tampa’s health care landscape. The work of Clara Frye and Mayor Julian Lane ultimately led to the creation of one of the South’s first integrated hospitals – our own, Tampa General Hospital, and their influence still guides us.

In 1908, Frye, an African-American nurse who had recently moved to Tampa, was told that a Black cancer patient would die without surgery – but Tampa’s hospitals would not treat Black patients. Frye opened her own home to allow a doctor to perform the necessary surgery. The patient recovered there as well, and Frye’s home soon became a clinic for Tampa’s Black patients. She died having impoverished herself to improve the health of her community in 1936. Her extraordinary kindness, compassion and commitment to the Black community was recognized the next year when the city opened the Clara Frye Memorial Hospital near her home. In 1967, Mayor Julian Lane closed this hospital, and integrated what was then known as Tampa Memorial Hospital, changing its name to Tampa General Hospital. In 1991, Tampa General Hospital dedicated the Clara Frye Pavilion in her honor.

Mayor Lane was also a true civil rights hero. In addition to his work to improve access to health care for Black Tampanians, in 1963 he worked with civic leaders to integrate downtown businesses as well as Tampa’s public schools. He also enforced stricter adherence to civil service hiring guidelines to ensure African-Americans had equal access to public sector employment.  In addition, he worked tirelessly with community leaders across the city to ensure that these transitions occurred without the horrific scenes of hate and violence happening in other locations in the South.

Stories from the Jim Crow era are tragic and now almost incomprehensible. Yet they can be inspirational as well. Think of the enormous personal sacrifices of Clara Frye, who literally gave up her home and fortune to care for the victims of prejudice and hate. And we can also take inspiration from the personal and political courage shown by Mayor Lane, whose commitment to human rights and audacious actions were a decade ahead of their time – a true profile in courage. These heroes should inspire us to undertake the necessary work toward equality and justice that remains to be done.     As Rev. King said – and former President Barack Obama famously quoted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  It falls to us to continue on that just path.

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