On July 28, 1868, US Secretary of State William Seward announced that the Fourteenth Amendment had been ratified. Three years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth nullified the Dred Scott ruling, declaring that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” are citizens.
The Fourteenth also includes the Equal Protection Clause, which would later form the constitutional basis for various civil rights laws and court decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Following Brown, civil rights organizations around the country—and especially in the South—filed lawsuits to desegregate public schools. In Florida, one of the most significant lawyers in the desegregation struggle was Tampa’s own Francisco Rodriguez, Jr. (1916–1988).
“During those years, I filed practically every lawsuit that was filed in the state of Florida,” recalled Rodriguez in a 1978 interview with Fred Beaton. Rodriguez was the son of Afro-Cuban immigrants who worked in Ybor City’s cigar factories. His father was also a labor leader and a member of Sociedad La Unión Martí-Maceo social club who instilled in his son a passion for activism and pride in his heritage.
After graduating from Florida A&M University, Rodriguez taught at a public school in Ft. Pierce, where he encountered stricter segregation than he had known in the relatively relaxed multiracial community of Ybor City. He returned to Tampa to teach before pursuing graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University and serving in the Marine Corps in World War II.
While teaching again after the war, he became frustrated by how little had changed for Black Americans.
Well, the schools were separate and very unequal. And nobody even tried to hide it. You know, there was no question about it. Someone—if you’d ask for something, they’d tell you, “Well, even Hillsborough [County] doesn’t have that.” That means to say, you know, if Hillsborough doesn’t have it, you can’t get it.
After teaching for a year, he enrolled in law school at Howard University, where he became active in the NAACP, then returned to Tampa as the organization’s special counsel for the Southeast region.
As a Black Latino from a Spanish-speaking household, Rodriguez had an unusual vantage point on the Jim Crow era. In a 1983 interview with Gary Mormino and Gayla Jamison, he recalled the “chauvinism” of Cuban immigrants of all races toward Americans of all races, as well as tensions between Black Cubans and the larger African American community.
You know, racial prejudice is a terrible thing when you are the one being prejudiced against. But almost any weak person avails himself of the excuse to be better than somebody; you have nothing else to do, you know. It’s easy to do because you don’t have to accomplish anything. It’s only human to want to say that I’m better than John Doe.
In 2016, the city of Tampa unveiled a bust of Rodriguez on the Riverwalk, where he joined other pivotal figures in the city’s history.
Credit: Matt Barganier, Collections Specialist for Oral History