New Civil Rights Exhibit at Florida Holocaust Museum

Florida Holocaust Museum's Civil Rights Exhibit

The Florida Holocaust Museum announced its initiative to collect objects, photographs and artifacts that document the civil rights struggles and movement in the Tampa Bay-Sarasota area.

“Our goal is to put together a comprehensive exhibit that will tell the story of heroes in their own community who suffered and fought to change the world,” said Zoe Gustafson, FHM’s Chief Finance Officer, reading from an official museum statement.

The exhibit is scheduled to open in August 2015 in conjunction with another exhibit which will document the national Civil Rights Movement.

“We are at a critical juncture. The people involved with the Civil Rights Movement, like the survivors of the Holocaust, are aging. We feel it is vitally important to collect, preserve and showcase their stories for future generations,” Gustafson said.

After the announcement the museum held a screening of the documentary “Through the Tunnel,” which centers on Lincoln Memorial High. Lincoln was the only high school for African Americans in Manatee County until 1969, when the school was integrated with Manatee High. The title refers to the actual tunnel that ran under U.S. Route 41 through which Lincoln High football players had to walk to get from the campus to the playing field. This walk became a ritual and the team would often sing prayer songs and spirituals such as “Wade in the Water.”

Former NFL star Henry Lawrence was one of these players and is featured prominently in the award-winning documentary. Lawrence shares his stories and recollections of playing for the Trojans in the days of segregated schools, and says of the pre-game of singing and praying: “It was an emotional thing. Emotion is a big part of the game.”

Honing his skills on the field playing for Lincoln, Lawrence became an All-American at FAMU before being drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders in 1974. During a pro career spanning 13 seasons, the offensive lineman was a two-time Pro-Bowler and won three championships with the Raiders. Yet, Lawrence wasn’t the only standout making big plays on the Lincoln High gridiron.

Ray Bellamy, the first African American to sign a football scholarship to play for the University of Miami, also suited up for the Trojans. A senior when Lawrence was a freshman, Bellamy was also the first African American football player given a scholarship to a major university in the Southeast. A three-sport star at Lincoln, he later became Miami’s first African American student body president.

Lincoln’s legendary head coach Eddie Shannon is truly at the heart of the documentary. Shannon, who began his coaching career in 1955, continued to coach at Manatee High when the schools were merged and played an integral role in helping students adjust to integration. He coached there until 1987.

“The thing about that first year, 1969 is that it brought people together — black and white — who had never been together in their lives. You can’t just put them together; they have to put themselves together. And that’s what they did,” Shannon said in the film.

The film’s most poignant moment shows a large gathering of former players that reunited in 2009, 40 years after Lincoln closed. Representing various graduating classes, these players walked through the tunnel together clapping and singing, “Glory! Hallelujah! I’m so glad I’m from LM High!” Many of them hadn’t seen one another since their school football days. Some alumni even drove from Georgia to make the symbolic walk with former teammates. Shot almost entirely in black and white, with an abundance of photos of Lincoln High players and students, it is an engaging documentary that depicts the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Symbolically, toward the film’s end there is a segment in full color showing African American and white high school football fans sitting in the stands side by side, and a retired Coach Shannon still on the sidelines offering support and advice to players of all races.

“Lincoln Memorial High School may be no more, but it did not disappear. It is there in our lives. So long as we remember, Lincoln High remains in our dreams,” said the film’s narrator E.D. “Moody” Johnson.

“Through the Tunnel” was produced by Judge Durand Adams (retired), Judge Charles Williams and Charles Clapsaddle in partnership with Manatee Educational Television. The project was initially to be a documentary on Eddie Shannon, yet after meeting with the coach, Adams expressed surprise when Shannon told him there was still a tunnel under the highway. Shannon took Adams, Williams and Clapsaddle, to see the tunnel.

“It was like a revelation,” Adams told the audience at the screening, “because here’s this place that meant so much to so many people for so many years.” Upon seeing the tunnel for the first time, he recalled saying to Williams: “We may have a bigger movie than we thought.”

Several Lincoln High alumni were at the screening, some even wearing the purple Lincoln football jerseys. Coach Shannon was on hand as well, and drew a long ovation from the approximately 100 audience members when introduced by Adams.

“When I say he’s legendary in Manatee County, that’s an understatement,” Adams said. “He’s a wonderful and in many ways, a heroic man.”

Referring to integration in schools, Williams said, “A lot of people didn’t realize that there really wasn’t a blueprint on how to go about doing it. After the Brown [vs. Topeka Board of Education] decision was rendered, it was really up to local school districts to figure out how to implement it. People like Coach Shannon were charged with implementing this momentous decision.”

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