Francisco Aristides Rodriguez, Jr. (1916-1988)
Prepared by the Historical Monument Trail Selection Committee, Friends of the Riverwalk.
Born in Tampa on February 6, 1916, Francisco Rodriguez, Junior was named for his father, a native of the Cuban city, Pindar del Rio. Later as an adult, Francisco, Junior added the middle name, Aristides, in honor of the Greek statesman, Aristides the Just.
Francisco Rodriguez, Senior came to Tampa from Cuba in 1909. He married Caridad Lavin, a Havana resident who had arrived here much earlier, prior to Cuba’s revolution against Spain. The granddaughter of a slave woman, Caridad was one of many women who worked in the cigar industry. Both Francisco and Caridad were Afro-Cuban, but his heritage also included some Chinese ancestry. He was self-educated, but he read widely and became known in Tampa as an orator and labor leader. He also was active in the Marti-Maceo Society, a mutual aid organization named for Cuba’s leaders in its successful 1898 revolution: Jose Marti was white; Antonio Maceo was black.
Caridad and Francisco had three children. Their daughter Myrtle was the oldest. Tampa’s first Afro-Cuban to earn a college degree, Myrtle became a teacher in Tampa. Their son, Miguel, became a revered band director at Middleton High School and was influential in Tampa’s music scene. Young Francisco grew up speaking Spanish and knew no English when he entered grammar school at Tampa’s old Harlem Academy.
After Meacham Elementary School, he attended two other historic segregated schools, Booker T. Washington Junior High School and Middleton High School. He moved on to the Tallahassee institution then known as Florida Agriculture & Mechanical College – denoting the era’s vocational limitations for black students. Rodriguez aimed higher and graduated with a major in language.
He taught one year in Fort Pierce, an East Coast town where he did not fit in because it was much more rigidly segregated than Tampa. World War II was underway by then, and Rodriguez joined the Marine Corps. He served in the Pacific Theater of Operations and was on the Japanese Island of Okinawa when the US ended the war by dropping the atomic bomb. The Marines sent him on to China, where he also worked part-time as a librarian. In a 1983 interview with USF’s Dr. Gary Mormino, Rodriguez said: “It was a tremendous experience. I wouldn’t trade it for all the colleges in the world.” He taught English and Spanish there, while studying Chinese on his own.
Returning to Tampa, Rodriguez taught one year at Middleton High School, but was disappointed by how little things had changed. He moved to Washington, DC, and enrolled at Howard University Law School, a historic institution that Congress began just after the Civil War. (Although it was intended primarily for blacks, women of both races also pioneered there at a time women of any race were barred from studying law.) Rodriguez sought every opportunity to learn, and later did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and at Temple University in Philadelphia, both prestigious schools.
He passed the Florida bar exam and was licensed as an attorney in 1951. The NAACP moved its state headquarters to Tampa in 1952, and he would work his many legal cases from there. He also hosted a radio show to proclaim the organization’s cause. According to NAACP leader Bob Saunders, “the show reached at least some white listeners, a fact that added an important dimension to our work.” Indeed, the first white member of the local NAACP was future State Senator Helen Gordon Davis.
Rodriguez made the first of several unsuccessful bids for public office in 1955, but decades would pass before the area finally elected an African American. (That was NAACP leader and pastor Leon Lowry, who won a seat on the school board in 1976; Rev. Lowry is not to be confused with Sumter Lowry, a white arch-segregationist for whom Tampa’s zoo is named.)
During the following decades, Rodriguez filed many lawsuits to champion the cause of equality in pay, access to housing, and especially educational issues — including new textbooks and athletic equipment for black students instead of the used items that were handed down after whites no longer wanted them. In the criminal courts, he was an effective defense attorney in a time prior to today’s public defender system. He represented indigent blacks charged in death penalty cases of alleged rape and murder of whites. He also organized sit-ins of young blacks throughout Florida, where they faced arrest for sitting at lunch counters waiting to be served.
Francisco Rodriguez was akin to the fictional Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird – but unlike the Finch character, Rodriguez was black and working in an era when lynching was real. For all of this risk and sacrifice, he received little pay and frequent threats. Many of his cases were in Florida towns that were more racist than Tampa, and traveling to them not only was dangerous, but also required the indignity of segregated restrooms, restaurants, and hotels. He also spent long days in Tallahassee when the Johns Committee, headed by racist Senator Charley Johns, interrogated Rodriguez’s clients. Most of the committee’s targets were white liberals, and other blacks discouraged Rodriguez’s political activism as likely to bring trouble to them all.
Perhaps his most famous case was that of two Lake County African Americans who were scheduled for execution on charges of raping a white woman. After a white deputy confessed that his colleagues had faked the evidence, Rodriguez’s appeal for a stay of execution saved their lives. In another Lake County case, Rodriguez and his NAACP colleague Bob Saunders had the temerity to call the Governor’s Mansion at nearly midnight. Mrs. Leroy Collins answered the phone, woke her husband, and a few hours later, the governor forced the local sheriff to release an unfairly accused black teen.
The father of six children, Francisco Rodriguez was married twice. He met his first wife while in college in Tallahassee, before his time in the Marine Corps. In 1951, the year that he returned to Florida and passed its bar exam, he married Beatrice Elizabeth Tabor. A Tampa native, Beatrice raised their children. Often the entire family would accompany him on trips around Florida as he tried civil rights cases. Even after entering the ministry, Reverend Rodriguez continued his work as an advocate for civil rights and human rights. He died just two years prior to the 1990 election of his niece, Sylvia Rodriguez Kimbell, who become the first black woman on the Hillsborough County Commission in 1990.
In an opinion that referenced the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states must provide people facing criminal charges with a lawyer, the Florida Court of Appeals (201 So.2nd 89) said: Attorney Rodriguez is “a most able, conscientious, and diligent lawyer…[who] was in the forefront of the battle for individual constitutional rights long before the goad of Gideon v. Wainwright… [He] pricked the judicial conscience.”