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City People

A heartfelt history

Ellen Green led the county's NAACP at a time when women held few leadership positions in the struggle for civil rights.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Ellen Green, who still lives in the Port Tampa house where she was born, was an insurance company clerk when she was called upon to lead the local chapter of the NAACP. Then, blacks had to sit in the back of the trolley and use separate restrooms.

PORT TAMPA -- Many people gave their lives for civil rights. Ellen Green gave her heart.

In 1961, she was the president of the Hillsborough NAACP. The stark signs that said "white" and "colored" on bathroom doors were coming down. Black students were integrating lunch counters.

Green led the charge in Tampa while working full time as a clerk/typist for Central Life Insurance Co. and caring for her bedridden mother.

Her days began at 5 a.m., when she awakened to fix breakfast. They ended 21 hours later, after grueling debates over how best to fix the world. Slowing down was out of the question.

"We were right on the edge of getting integration to work," Green, 87, recalled.

One day in 1961, she woke up in a hospital.

At 45, she had suffered her first heart attack.

"I went to pieces," she said.

But Green's heart never quit and neither did she.

Decades later, the change she sought until she collapsed, exhausted, is all around her.

Once, only black families lived on her block. Now, a white family lives across the street and an Asian family lives catty corner.

"It's a whole new world," she said in her home, eyes closed, a smile on her lips.

"What a change. What a great change."

* * *

Fans call her an unsung hero.

In 1959, Green, a Port Tampa native was elected local president of the NAACP. Across the South, the group was leading a scrappy movement to end segregation.

At the time, few women held leadership positions in the struggle.
photo
“It’s a whole new world,” says Ellen Green, 87. “What a change. What a great change.”

Green's role isn't fleshed out in historical accounts. Neither are the achievements of many women who contributed.

"As a rule, I don't think black women have received their historical due," said Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio.

A few years ago, Iorio wrote an article for a history journal about Green and two other women who were civil rights leaders in Tampa. During a visit to Green's home, Iorio saw a photograph of Green making a speech at a fundraising dinner.

In the photo, Green wears a dress -- and an apron.

Before the speech, she had been in the kitchen, helping other workers prepare the food. She was so busy she forgot to remove the apron.

"That says a lot about her as a leader," Iorio said. "She was with the troops all the time."

Green was a reluctant leader.

Her father managed a bar. Her mother washed clothes.

Green keeps a blurry photo of her mother, standing in the back yard of their Port Tampa home, wearing a flower-print dress. An old Ford waits in a shed. Stalks of sugar cane peek over a fence.

Green, an only child, landed a job with Central Life, where she typed and filed for 29 years. Co-workers convinced her to join the NAACP.

Before long, members made her secretary, then vice president. Then they put her name on the ballot for president.

Green's protest failed.

"I said, 'Oh no . . . I'm just helping the president out,"' she said. "I didn't want to be president. They paid me no attention."

Suddenly, it was up to an office clerk to right a topsy-turvy world.

At the time, blacks had to sit in the back of the trolley, watch movies from the balcony. At many restaurants, blacks had to order food from the take-out window -- or the back door.

Bathrooms were segregated. So were water fountains.

The force of law and the threat of violence made the rules stick.

Somehow, Green, shy and quiet and an inch over five feet tall, rose to the challenge. She offers the only explanation that makes sense to her: God must have picked her.

"Because I put forth no effort to get into any of these things," she said. "Somebody decided I'm supposed to do it."

* * *

Guts played a role, too.

In 1960, Green and a friend sat down in Woolworth's on Franklin Street. Their outing was part of a broader effort led by younger NAACP members to integrate Tampa restaurants.

The women politely ordered and waited, while two burly white men protested. Green could feel the tension.

In other cities in the South, lunch counter sit-ins had been scenes of violence and humiliation. Food was dumped. Punches were thrown. Green was "scared to death," she said.

When the order came, Green said, "I looked at it and thought, 'Well, I hope I'm going to be able to eat this. I hope these people aren't going to hurt me.' "

They didn't. The whites grumbled but moved on. Green and her friend ate and moved on, too.

And things changed forever.

After that, "Everybody was going where they wanted," Green said.

Green took other stands.

In the 1950s, black parents were outraged when they learned of School Board plans to teach black students from Port Tampa in portables. Before the buildings arrived, two dozen parents formed a human chain to keep them from being unloaded.

The protest worked. The portables plan was scrapped.

Norman Cannon, 55, is a lifelong Port Tampa resident who remembers the school fight and Green's role.

"She was right up front," he said. "She's very low key. But when it comes to something important, she'll stay and fight."

* * *

Green's heart attack forced her to take it easy.

But it didn't stop her.

Although she stayed in bed five weeks and stepped down as head of the local NAACP, she remained a top-ranking official with the state chapter.

Five years later, she became local president of another civil rights group, the National Council of Negro Women. She served 16 years.

Today, Green still lives in the wood-frame house of her birth.

It's more than a century old, modest but sturdy.

Baby-blue trim brightens the windows. Massive live oaks keep it cool.

Despite a second heart attack and a stroke, Green continues to be active in her church. Last week, she labored at the dining room table, trying to find just the right words to offer in church for two members who passed away.

Free time? "I don't have any," she said.

Not much time to dwell on the past either. Green initially turned down an interview request, saying "it happened so long ago."

"Humble's an understatement," said Jill Buford, president of the Port Tampa Civic Association. "She doesn't think she's done anything. We all know that's not true."

The struggle isn't over, Green said. But there's no denying progress.

The grown children of white families stop to check on her. She remembers her mother doing their laundry. When she sees Buford, she's greeted with hugs and kisses.

When she looks outside, she sees black and white and Asian kids playing together.

"God made us all, and we're here to enjoy whatever he has put on this earth," Green said, her hands folded tightly in front of her.

"And now that we can enjoy it together, it makes it so much nicer."

-- Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

Ellen Green

AGE: 87

CLAIM TO FAME: Former president, Hillsborough NAACP.

FORMER JOBS: Clerk/typist for Central Life Insurance Co.; secretary for Progressive Pallbearers Grand Union.

FAMILY: Son, Carl Davidson Allen; daughter, Irma Truss; stepson, Clyde Allen.

CHURCH: Mt. Zion AME, Port Tampa.

HEROINE: Educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

BRUSHES WITH FAME: Met Martin Luther King Jr. "He had that charisma that made you stop and listen."

SOURCE OF PRIDE: 16-year leadership of local chapter of National Council of Negro Women.

ONE WISH: That her home be preserved as a memorial to her parents.

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