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.
The Rev. A. Leon Lowry, one of Tampa's most influential civil rights activists and the first African-American elected to the Hillsborough County School Board, died of congestive heart failure Saturday August 20,2005. He was 92.
Rev. A. Leon Lowry dies at 92
Tampa Bay Times Article
A last duty: sharing a man of greatnessAs the wife of the Rev. A. Leon Lowry Sr. makes his final arrangements, she knows he belongs to not just her, but a nation.By SHERRI DAY
Published August 27, 2005
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
When Shirley Lowry first met the Rev. A. Leon Lowry Sr. in 1994, she was new in town and knew little about the civil rights giant who would become her husband. He was a widower courting a teacher at a church school that bore his name. He was 87, she, 39, when she agreed to his marriage proposal.
[Lowry Elementary School]
This is the portrait of the Rev. A. Leon Lowry Sr. that hangs in the front office at Lowry Elementary School. His funeral is at 2 p.m. today at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church.[Special to the Times]
The Rev. A. Leon Lowry Sr., then president of Florida's NAACP, waits outside the White House for an appointment to see President John F. Kennedy.[Special to the Times]
The Rev. Lowry is seated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a state conference in Tampa during the early 1960s. The Rev. Lowry was a professor at Morehouse College, where he taught Dr. King.A Requiem For Leon Lowry
A poem written as a tribute to Rev. Lowry by James E. Tokley, Tampa's poet laureate.
TAMPA - The Rev. A. Leon Lowry Sr. was a widower courting a teacher at a church school that bore his name. He struck the teacher as wise and kind. He wooed her with dinners of lamb chops and mint jelly, smothered liver and onions.
He asked her parents for her hand in marriage.
He was 87, she, 39, when, finally, she agreed.
They had been married two years before he mentioned having once taught Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She learned he had been to the White House, as president of Florida's NAACP, and had conferred with President John F. Kennedy.
Through his eyes, Shirley Lowry came to know the civil rights movement.
And she came to know that her new husband belonged not simply to her but to a nation.
"The community feels that they own him," she said. "As a wife, I have to kind of share."
Never has it been more clear than in these days after his death. Jesse Jackson's office calls the church. Clerk of Court Pat Frank stops by with a food basket; a former state senator sends a handwritten note. The phone keeps ringing. The Rev. Lowry, 92, died last Saturday morning at St. Joseph's Hospital. His funeral is at 2 p.m. today at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, where he was pastor for nearly four decades.
The service will likely draw mourners from around the country, as colleagues, freedom fighters, family and a public touched by Lowry's legacy come to pay last respects to a man who helped father the civil rights movement.
"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," civil rights historian Ray Arsenault said. "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. I am just kicking myself that I didn't interview him."
Shirley Lowry did.
When she met the Rev. Lowry, in 1994, she was new in town and knew little about the man she would marry. His wife of many years, Claudia Whitmore Lowry, with whom he had two children, had died that year. He was soon to retire from Beulah Baptist and would walk the halls of the church school, snapping pictures of little children.
She began to ask about him. Who was this old man?
Slowly, she picked up pieces of his story. He was the first black person elected to the Hillsborough County School Board, acquaintances told her. He was a venerable civil rights figure in the Tampa Bay area. He was quiet but eloquent of speech and learned. Still, he was rattling her class with his camera, she said.
One day he introduced himself.
"His pickup line was, "Do you have any children?"' she recalled earlier this week at their Lutz home. "I said, "Yes, sir."'
The Rev. Lowry offered to mentor her three boys and gave her his phone number. She thought he was being fresh. But she now describes his overture as an example of his character and dedication to children.
Two months later, he asked her to dinner. She soon fell in love and began to dig deeper into his past. She started to read his religion column in the Florida Sentinel Bulletin. She found a biography of his life, which detailed his birth in Savannah, Ga., his family's migration to Brooklyn, N.Y., and his decision to return south for college.
When he entered Morehouse College, the Rev. Lowry wanted to become a doctor, his wife said. But he soon realized a greater call to the ministry.
She learned about her husband's first churches - in Cambridge, Mass., and Augusta, Ga. She heard stories about his days as a professor and dean of men at Morehouse College, where he taught Dr. King and Lerone Bennett Jr., the longtime executive editor of Ebony Magazine.
She also found out about Rev. Lowry's trailblazing civil rights work in Florida, where he moved in 1956 to become pastor of Beulah.
She learned of others who had worked alongside him in the fight.
State Rep. Arthenia L. Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, remembers the Rev. Lowry as an organizer. Using middle and high school students, he led integration efforts at Tampa's department stores, lunch counters, beaches and other public facilities. Joyner was a junior at the old Middleton Senior High School in Tampa when she joined the sit-in movement. The Rev. Lowry told the students how to carry themselves.
"It was supposed to be done with dignity and pride," Joyner said. "We were reassured that everything would be all right. We knew that if anything happened, Rev. Lowry would be there to save us."
The Rev. Lowry put a young Olive Florene Jones in charge of organizing the 1961 program that brought Dr. King to Tampa. Bomb threats periodically interrupted the program, Jones said, but the Rev. Lowry was a rock.
"You could absolutely not defeat his spirit," said Jones, 78, who also helped organize voter registration drives under the Rev. Lowry's tutelage. "He was just indomitable."
Though the Rev. Lowry was called to lead Florida's NAACP and strategize alongside boldface names in the civil rights movement, he often rolled up his sleeves in rural Florida.
Sam Horton, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, enlisted him to organize a chapter in the Plant City area. To protect members from persecution, the Rev. Lowry suggested they call the organization the Ridge Improvement Society, Horton said.
"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," Horton said. "Sometimes when you are renowned across America, you don't have time to deal with the little folks. He never forgot the little people."
When the University of South Florida opened in 1956, the Rev. Lowry encouraged black enrollment.
Years later, he pushed for diversity on campus. He also helped found the school's Institute for Black Life.
"He planted a seed of hope," said Juel Smith, the institute's founding director, "and that is so important because that seed of hope continued right up until the time he passed on."
For 16 years, he served on the Hillsborough County School Board. He was its first black member and the first black person to win a contested office in the county.
Were it not for Rev. Lowry, Doris Ross Reddick is certain she would never have served on the School Board. Reddick became the second black board member when Rev. Lowry retired in 1992.
"He said, "You're going to have to do a lot of reading,"' Reddick said. "And, "You're going to have to look at things very logically and consider everybody, not just one group of people."'
It would be years before the Rev. Lowry would share the fullness of his experiences with his new bride. What little she knew when she met him convinced her that she could not marry a man of such great stature. She worried that people would question their age difference.
But he was persistent.
They spent the Rev. Lowry's final years together agitating for change and social justice, albeit a little more quietly than in his heyday. They visited churches around the country and encouraged ministers. They traveled. He used a scooter to ride through the hallways at the Orient Road Jail where he counseled inmates. In April, he preached his last sermon, a 45-minute talk at his former Augusta church on the importance of economic empowerment and home ownership, his wife said.
From time to time, the Rev. Lowry would talk about his death. He told her she would have to be strong. He wanted a cherry-wood casket. He had a list of people who should speak at his funeral.
She spent last Saturday morning with her head on her husband's still heart, clinging to the last of his warmth.
Since then, she has been carrying out his wishes.
She laid out his clothes one last time and, this afternoon, will face the world without him. His presence made her feel elegant.
Later, she will unlock his study and open her soul to their memories - the special dinners, the surprise Valentine's gifts and their final conversation.
For now, she gives him back to the community.
Beulah seats 1,200 people. She ordered 2,000 programs.
"Of course, I do feel kind of lost," she said. "But I have to pick up. I have to do what he says. That's the way it is.
"Rev. Lowry says, "You still have to do God's work whether it's rain or shine."'
Information from A. Leon Lowry, Sr. A Warrior In The Vineyard by Peggy M. Peterman was used in this report. Times news researcher Cathy Wos also contributed. Sherri Day can be reached at 813 226-3405 or email@example.com