Lowry, A. Leon, Sr.
A. Leon Lowry Sr.
Civil rights leader, minister, educator
The Reverend Dr. A. Leon Lowry Sr. earned a place in American history by serving as one of the teachers of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when King was a theology student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. For the citizens of Tampa, Florida, however, Lowry was more than a page in the history books. He was a leader in the fight for civil rights in Tampa in the 1950s and 1960s, going on to become the first African American elected to countywide office in Florida's Hillsborough County. In later life he became a Tampa institution who had touched the lives of numerous people in the community. "What I found in doing…research was that people genuinely loved him—from city and county officials to the people in his church," documentary filmmaker Spencer Briggs, who made a film about Lowry, told Walt Belcher of the Tampa Tribune.
The first part of Lowry's life was marked by moves between Georgia and the northeastern United States. Born Alfonso Leon Lowry in Savannah, Georgia, on June 12, 1913, he grew up in New York City, in a multiethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn that was home to recent immigrants from various parts of Europe. In 1935 he returned to Georgia to enroll at Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduating in 1939. His initial aim was to study medicine, but he felt a calling to the priesthood and furthered his education in theology. In 1942 he received a graduate degree from Andover-Newton Theological School near Boston and continued taking classes at Harvard and Boston universities.
Becoming pastor at Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lowry seemed on track for a distinguished career in the ministry there. He decided to return to the segregated South, however, in order to take a position as professor of theology and dean of men at Morehouse, his alma mater. In 1945 one of his students was a young Martin Luther King Jr., who had enrolled at Morehouse at age 15. When asked about King, Lowry sometimes quipped (as Hillsborough County Judge Perry Little recalled to Chris Echegaray of the Tampa Tribune) that "He showed some promise." Although Lowry soon left Atlanta, the bond between teacher and student continued and deepened as the struggle for civil rights intensified in the 1950s.
In 1946 Lowry returned to preaching as pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. There he married Claudia Whitmore, and the couple raised two sons, A. Leon Lowry II and Benjamin William Lowry. The family moved to Tampa, Florida, in 1956 so that Lowry could become pastor of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church. He remained in that post until 1995. Soon after his arrival in Florida, Lowry was elected president of the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The University of South Florida opened its doors in 1956, and Lowry campaigned to help African Americans to be accepted for enrollment there. Organizing new NAACP chapters in small Florida towns, he was sensitive to the position of potential activists in small towns. He gave a chapter in Plant City, Florida, the innocuous name of the Ridge Improvement Society in order to protect its members from reprisals by employ- ers. "It was during the time where, if your name appeared on the rolls, you were automatically fired so you had to find a way to deal with that and get the job done," Hillsborough County NAACP president Sam Horton recalled to Sherri Day of the St. Petersburg Times. "Sometimes when you are renowned across America, you don't have time to deal with the little folks. He never forgot the little people."
As the lunch counter sit-in grew in importance as a means of nonviolent resistance to segregation, Lowry formed teams of students from Tampa's Booker T. Washington Junior High School and Blake and Middleton high schools to occupy counters at local stores. Segregationists peppered Lowry's home with gunshots, nearly hitting Lowry and his wife. The NAACP office was besieged with bomb threats, and a man with a baseball bat half-concealed under a coat tailed Lowry for weeks. But Lowry refused to back down, organizing a group of sympathizers who would quickly post bail for protesters who had been arrested. Finally Tampa restaurant owners agreed to begin serving African Americans on an equal basis.
Lowry was involved in further civil rights campaigns in Florida, including the ultimately successful effort to desegregate buses, railroads, and transportation terminal buildings in the state. He met with President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to discuss desegregation initiatives. "A lot of times the hard work of the movement was done beyond the scope of the TV cameras and after the national figures had left town," historian Ray Arsenault told Day. "Leon Lowry was one of the figures who did the heavy lifting. Within the history of the movement of this part of Florida, he is a towering figure of great historic importance." He co-founded a black-owned bank in Tampa and served for 16 years on the board of directors of the local public television station, WEDU.
In 1976, Lowry was urged by Hillsborough County School Board member Pat Frank to run as her replacement when she left the board to run for higher office. "He responded, very quietly and firmly, with the answer ‘No,’" she told S.I. Rosenbaum of the St. Petersburg Times. Never one to seek out the spotlight, the soft-spoken Lowry was persuaded to change his mind and eventually won the election by a greater margin that Frank had achieved in her last campaign, becoming the first African American elected to countywide office in Hillsborough County. He won reelection several times and retired from the school board in 1992. The following year, Tampa's A. Leon Lowry Elementary School in Tampa was dedicated in his honor.
Recognized for his social justice campaigns with the Florida Bar Foundation's Medal of Honor in 1987, Lowry remained active until the end of his life. After retiring from Beulah Baptist, he wrote a religion column for the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin and established a three-times-a-week ministry for inmates at Tampa's Orient Road Jail, using a scooter to ride through the halls. Lowry's first wife died in 1994, after which the 87-year-old minister wooed a 39-year-old teacher at a church school by cooking her liver-and-onion dinners; she became Shirley Lowry upon the couple's marriage in 2000. The Rev. A. Leon Lowry died in Tampa of congestive heart failure on August 20, 2005. At his funeral, Dr. Michael Harris told mourners, as quoted by Rosenbaum: "We're not mourning a loss. We're celebrating a victory: his victory in life over forces that would hurt his people, his victory in terms of letting us know that love is more powerful than hate."
At a Glance …
Born on June 12, 1913, in Savannah, GA; raised in Brooklyn, NY; died on August 20, 2005, in Tampa, FL; married Claudia Whitmore, 1946 (deceased 1994); married Shirley, 2000; children: A. Leon Lowry II and Benjamin William Lowry. Education: Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, BA, 1939; Andover-Newton Theological School, Massachusetts, DD, 1942; studied theology at Harvard University, Boston University. Religion: Baptist.
Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, professor and dean of men, mid-1940s; Tabernacle Baptist Church, Augusta, GA, pastor, 1946-56; Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, Tampa, FL, pastor, 1956-95, pastor emeritus, 1998-2005; Hillsborough County, FL, leader of civil rights initiatives, 1960s; Hillsborough County School Board, member, 1976-92.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Florida chapter president).
Florida State Bar Association, Medal of Honor, 1987.
St. Petersburg Times, August 21, 2005, p. B1; August 27, 2005, p. A1; August 28, 2005.
Tampa Tribune, January 16, 2005, p. 1; August 21, 2005, p. 1; August 28, 2005, p. 1; October 13, 2005, p. 1.
—James M. Manheim
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