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A diverse Gasparilla appeases its critics

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


TAMPA -- Sandy Freedman dates her disillusionment to the food fight.

In the late 1980s, early in her term as mayor, Freedman found herself ducking for cover under a table at the Tampa Yacht Club while some of Tampa's most prominent citizens -- dressed as pirates for a pre-Gasparilla luncheon -- mischievously hurled volleys of food and silverware at each other.

The people making the mess had been drinking. They were white, moneyed and male. The people who would have to clean it up, Freedman noticed, were all black.

"You could just see the disgust, the disillusionment" on those workers' faces, she said.

The experience crystallized Freedman's qualms about Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the 750-member, all-male social club -- then exclusively white -- that sponsors Tampa's biggest one-day outdoor event, the annual Gasparilla invasion and parade. In 1990, Freedman decided to pull police support and clean-up service for the parade -- which had cost the city $30,000 -- because of its all-white membership.

That was a painful year for the Krewe, a national embarrassment that members don't like to talk about. With the parade moved to coincide with Super Bowl XXV in January 1991, the Krewe came under fire for its exclusivity from the National Football League and an ad hoc group of local activists called the Coalition of African-American Organizations, which demanded that the Krewe integrate. Rather than immediately open its doors to blacks, the Krewe canceled the party.

Today, the parade is back the day before Super Bowl, and no one is raising a peep in protest.

What's changed in 10 years?

Most notably: While the parade used to feature only a handful of krewes, some 30 now participate, with dozens of Latins, blacks and women. Among them are the Buffalo Soldiers, based on a famous black Army regiment.

"We now have participants that cover the spectrum of society," said Jim Tarbet, executive director of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

So how many of the Krewe's members are black?

There are some, the Krewe says, but it won't disclose how many.

Tarbet, who was not involved with the Krewe in 1991, called it a "non-issue." He noted that the Krewe spends some $400,000 to sponsor the free event.

"Would you ask the Buffalo Soldiers," he said, "if they have any white soldiers?" (They don't.)

Added Krewe captain Steven Swindal: "I think we're just part of the menu that minorities or non-minorities can choose from. ... It's not like it was 10 years ago, when this was it. There's a lot of different opportunities besides Ye Mystic Krewe."

Freedman pointed to other factors obviating any protest: a better economy than the early 1990s and fewer tensions between the black community and police. Back then, local memories of the violent racial unrest of the late 1980s were still fresh.

"We had a high unemployment rate; we didn't have a black police chief; we had far fewer prominent African-Americans in public positions," Freedman said. "We had a police force then that wasn't nearly as integrated as it is today."

Inspired by Mardi Gras and dressed in leftover pirate costumes from the New Orleans festival, white Tampa businessmen dubbed themselves Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and staged the first mock invasion of the city in 1904. The club's bylaws excluded blacks until 1980. It still excludes women.

An insular enclave of Tampa's well-heeled country-club set, many of them members by virtue of family ties dating back to the city's founding, the club proved stubborn to change when protests erupted in 1990.

Besides the din raised by minority groups, Gasparilla faced pressure from the NFL, which was eager to avoid the kind of bad publicity that had shadowed a PGA championship at an all-white country club in Birmingham, Ala., that year.

When Freedman pulled city support for the parade, she said, she got hate mail from those decrying the death of a tradition. "I have to write a book some day about the heat I got," Freedman said.

After the 1991 Gasparilla parade was scuttled, the city scrambled to come up with a substitute. The result was Bamboleo, a multicultural festival, which flopped. People missed the pirates. The next year, the Krewe accepted two blacks into its ranks, then four. Gasparilla returned. Bitterly resisted changes were taking place in other cities, too. In New Orleans, the city council in 1991 ordered the all-white groups that hosted Mardi Gras to integrate or lose their parade permits within two years.

Michelle Patty, a black Tampa activist, said Gasparilla fell off the radar screen of concerned citizens because there are other fights to wage. "Gasparilla isn't the big picture anymore," she said. "We have kids in prison, an AIDS epidemic among the youth in our community. There are just too many things that are going on that are affecting us directly that are much larger than Gasparilla."

"There were those of us who really felt there was a lot more that needed to be solved than just getting somebody on a pirate ship," said Bob Gilder, a veteran civil rights activist who helped organize Bamboleo.

More pressing than breaching the all-white Krewe, he said, were worries in the black community about jobs, economic development and police violence. "Many of those things have been addressed" since then, Gilder said. "Tampa, like the rest of America, is not where it ought to be, racially speaking. But it isn't where it was. The community is not as divided now as it was 10 years ago."

Swindal, the Krewe's current captain and a general partner with the New York Yankees, said a third of the vendors working the parade route this year are minorities and noted an African-American entrepreneur, Keith White, will broadcast the parade live on the Internet.

Lee Reddick, president of the Buffalo Soldiers, which entered the parade three years ago, said Ye Mystic Krewe gave his group a friendly reception. This year, the roughly 30 members of the Buffalo Soliders will be accompanied by a float, a historical wagon and horses. Diversity, Reddick said, is now part of the parade's glory.

"We feel that for so many years, that was overlooked," Reddick said. "I don't know why people were afraid to (accept it) because when they do, people enjoy themselves immensely."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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