“A Visual History of Civil Rights and Social Change in Pinellas County” Part 1 –

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, Inc. (AAHA) produced the documentary “A Visual History of Civil Rights and Social Change in Pinellas County”, which delves into black history. Pinellas County community. Pictured above are students at Davis Academy, St. Petersburg’s first black school, located in the gasworks area.


ST. PETERSBURG – The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, Inc. (AAHA) presented the insightful documentary “A visual history of civil rights and social change in the county de Pinellas”, which examines such topics as the history of the first black settlers, the establishment of black neighborhoods and businesses, segregation, integration and the right to vote.

Narrated in part by AAHA President Gwendolyn Reese, the documentary serves as an entry point for understanding education and further exploration. The stories of the birth of our community are essential, as they continue to shape who we are today. Without knowing where we stand, it is difficult to move forward in a way that prioritizes equity for all.

Estevanico, ‘Little Steven’, an enslaved man from Morocco is believed to be the first black man on the continent.

The roots of iniquity in Pinellas County began as early as 1528 when Panfilo de Narvaez landed on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay. Spain explored the “New World” in search of gold, and Narvaez and his men claimed the lands and people they encountered for their king and their church.

With them was Estevanico, “Little Steven”, a slave from Morocco considered the first black on the continent. Narvaez explored Florida along the Gulf Coast and Texas and eventually made it to northern Mexico to meet the rest of his expedition. He and his men looted warehouses and exposed the indigenous Tocobaga people to disease.

The Tocobaga tribe primarily inhabited west-central Florida around the northern end of Old Tampa Bay and Pinellas County, Reese explained in the documentary. Their culture blended the native cultures of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. It is believed that their main town was at Safety Harbor, and due to disease and raids, by 1709 the Tocobaga tribe was all but destroyed.

About 100 years later, the Seminole people fled to Florida after a disastrous war against white settlers led by General Andrew Jackson. As the United States grew and Florida became a United States territory in 1821, the government forced many Seminoles to move to Oklahoma.

Today, the Seminoles who remained in Florida call themselves “the undefeated people” and are descendants of the approximately 300 people who evaded capture by the United States military. Currently, more than 2,000 indigenous people live on six reservations in the state and have settled in industries such as tourism, citrus and ranching.

Build anything but wealth

John Donaldson was the first black settler on the Lower Pinellas Peninsula

The Orange Belt Railway came to St. Petersburg in 1888, and black workers built the beds and laid the tracks. Some stayed to settle in the city’s first black neighborhoods, while whites took the railroad and brought the first wave of the tourist trade to the growing resort town. Black labor was essential to the development of the city. Black laborers built the Orange Belt Railroad, paved the streets, filled in the sidewalks, dug the sewer line, and helped build some of the structures that still stand today.

“The first black settlers of the lower Pinellas Peninsula were John Donaldson and Anna Jermaine. Donaldson, a former slave, and Jermaine, who would become his wife and the mother of his 11 children, arrived in the area in 1868 in the employ of Louis Bell, Jr., a white farmer,” Reese said. “The Donaldsons purchased 40 acres of land near what is now known as Lake Maggiore. Donaldson worked as a market gardener, among other things, to support his family, and he served as a community mail carrier.

Ed Donaldson, the son of John Donaldson and Anna Jermaine Donaldson, was noted as the oldest living resident of St. Petersburg and the first black man born in Pinellas Country when he died on November 13, 1967. The Donaldsons were the only black family until the influx of black workers to help build the railroad.

These settlers were not treated with the same respect as Donaldson. A black family was tolerable, but as more black people migrated to the area, attitudes changed, Reese noted.

Elder Jordan Sr., born into slavery around 1850, came to St. Pete in 1904. Jordan Sr. married Mary Frances Strobles, a Cherokee who was over six feet tall. Strobles was from Rosewood, Florida, a community notoriously destroyed in 1923 during a massacre of blacks by whites.

The Manhattan Casino in the 1980s

Jordan Sr. owned considerable property on the south side, including a livery stable and a gas station at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. Jordan Sr. and his sons built homes and helped open several businesses in the black community. He also opened the beach to African Americans and operated a bus line.

In 1925 he saw the need for a gathering place for the growing black community and built the Jordan Dance Hall, now known as the Manhattan Casino. He built his dance hall on 22nd Street (the Dueces), where people of color came to shop, socialize and do business without the stigma of racism tainting every interaction or transaction.

“It became the venue for local black artists and it was a milestone in what was called the ‘Chitlin’ circuit,” she said. “The Manhattan was to the black community what the Coliseum was to the white community. The building was designated a historic monument by the city council in 1994.”

In 1929, after the stock market crash, Jordan Sr. was one of the few people in the community whose money was not in the banks. To help keep the city afloat, he loaned some of it to the city government, Reese said. Jordan Elementary School and Jordan Park Housing Project are named after Jordan Sr., and a monument in his likeness and honor stands on the southwest corner of the Manhattan Casino property.

Most of the city’s African-American communities consisted mostly of dirt roads and unpainted shacks owned by absentee white landlords who were often indifferent to the property and who rented it.

Railroad workers and other black workers who came after the Donaldsons were forced to live in circumscribed quarters upon settling in St. Petersburg. Often these neighborhoods were demarcated by banks, which meant that mortgages could not be obtained or, if available, only at very high rates.

“Black people have been relegated to live in certain safe segregated neighborhoods away from tourists, white neighborhoods and downtown businesses,” Reese said. “Most of the city’s African-American communities consisted mostly of dirt roads and unpainted shacks owned by absentee white landlords who were often indifferent to the property and who rented it. There were a few exceptions to living in neighborhoods relegated to blacks. According to early city directories, several “colored” families lived in neighborhoods that were not of the traditional type.

“More than 100 black workers who helped build the Orange Belt Railroad made Pepper Town their home, located east of present-day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. St. and Third and Fourth Avenue South. The area around Booker Creek along Ninth Street south of First Avenue South was initially called Cooper’s Quarters and later became known as the Gasworks area. It was named for the two large cylinders housing the city’s natural gas supply.

The third African-American community, Methodist Town, grew around Bethel AME Church and was named after the church.

There was a thriving business district in the gasworks area, and it was the home of Davis Academy, St. Petersburg’s first black school. In 1894, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded at 912 Third Ave. N. A 1912 Polk City directory listed the location as Third Avenue North and Williams Court. Methodist Town’s third African-American community grew around it and was named after the church.

“It was on a side of town that was generally off-limits unless you were white,” Reese explained.

Most of the money earned by black workers went to white businesses outside their communities. This has resulted in a reduced ability to build up an intergenerational family heritage. A 2018 study found that three out of four neighborhoods that were demarcated 80 years ago continue to struggle economically. Today, nearly 26% of St. Petersburg’s African-American population has an income considered below the poverty line.

Then, in this four-part series, we’ll explore the city’s segregated healthcare system and the right to vote for “some” women.

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