Changes have made Gasparilla more inclusive
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- For more than 90 years, one of Tampa's most treasured events involves its captains of industry and scions of prominent families dressing as pirates and invading the city.
Steeped more in tradition than historical accuracy, Gasparilla is a bawdy, boozy day that for most of its history was ruled by an all-male, all-white social group.
The place for women in the parade was to grant pirates kisses or a peak at body parts in exchange for a string of beads. The only blacks in the parade were members of a marching bands or in the city's cleanup crew.
But that changed in 1991 when local minority and women's groups used the spotlight of a Super Bowl to change the city's history.
Now 10 years later, and with some hard lessons learned, Gasparilla has been remade. Now a pirate's face in Tampa is just as likely to be black or female as it is white.
"While we are not, racially speaking, where we ought to be, thank God we are not where we were," said Bob Gilder, a longtime city activist and NAACP leader.
The nation will see Gasparilla for itself on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. The city celebration, traditionally staged in February, has been moved up to become part of the official game festivities for the 2001 Super Bowl.
It is expected to draw more than 400,000 spectators to downtown Tampa.
More than half of the krewes -- the social clubs whose members dress up as pirates ride on floats and toss out the much-coveted trinkets -- were formed since 1991. There are all-female krewes, all-black krewes and ones built solely on the concept of diversity.
One black krewe is made up of descendants of the famed Buffalo Soldiers. Another female krewe has taken the name of the legendary Irish pirate Grace O'Malley.
Tampa's pre-Super Bowl festivities themselves have become a study in ethnicity, ranging from a soul food cook off to the staging of a play about prejudice and poverty along the Mississippi Delta. Tampa is the site of the new Black Heritage Festival, which gathers musicians, artists and inspirational speakers in what organizers hope will become an annual event.
"There has been a lesson learned," said Sam Wright, a University of South Florida associate dean and chairman of the Black Heritage Festival's organizing committee. "I think we can take this and really make something out of Tampa."
The 1991 controversy erupted when plans were being made to televise the Gasparilla parade and a coalition of civil rights activists objected, citing the all-white, all-male makeup of the parades principle organizer, Ye Mystic Krewe.
The Krewe included Jewish men and members of Tampa's many prominent Spanish, Cuban and Italian families, but until the early 1980s the krewe's charter includes a "whites only" clause.
The timing of the 1991 dispute couldn't have been worse. Tampa's race relations were tense in the aftermath of riots protesting police brutality just a few years earlier. The recession had hit the city's poor neighborhoods hard and the race and class distinctions seem especially sharp.
"It [Gasparilla] gave the impression of the good ol' boys bragging about being able to steal and pilfer and rape and rob and get away with it," Gilder said. "While many of the pirates I knew personally were very fine, outstanding businessmen, there were some that did not meet that standard."
Former Mayor Sandy Freedman had already tussled with Ye Mystic Krewe, when she broke tradition and refused the traditional, symbolic surrender of the city to the pirates. Freedman withdrew the support of city services for the parade in the controversy when the krewe refused to integrate.
"There were people in the krewe who were in denial," said Freedman, who has been out of office for nearly eight years.
"I remember having meetings with leaders of the krewe in my office who just couldn't understand why it was such a big deal. It just blew me away."
The krewe opted to cancel Gasparilla rather than be forced to add 25 black members in three weeks to integrate. Normally, Ye Mystic Krewe only adds a few new members each year, and only to replace ones who leave or die.
After the Super Bowl, Ye Mystic Krewe inducted four black men as members. It still has no women members and current krewe leaders did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this story.
Leonard Levy, vice chairman of the 2000 Super Bowl organizing committee who is also a member of Ye Mystic Krewe, recalled the decade-ago controversy as "tragic."
But Levy said good has resulted, citing the pack of new krewes that are now included in the main parade and a series of smaller events that make up the monthlong festivities.
"The fact that we have other krewes in there have made it much more inclusive an event," Levy said. "I don't think people think of us as elitist."
But some still see it otherwise.
Gilder, who has spent the past several years working across the bay in St. Petersburg to deal with that city's racial divisions, said although blacks are now part of the krewe and some of the city's other exclusive clubs, it's only wealthy blacks who have seen the improvements.
"What we need organizations to do is to use their influence to make this a better city to live in for all its people," Gilder said. "They need to put forth an effort to try to increase the standard of living for everybody.
"Until they do that -- I don't care if they become 50 percent black -- until organizations really help make a difference, then they are not doing what they ought to be doing."