Like many other public spaces, black people were not allowed to sit on St. Pete’s famous green benches.
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Editor
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 creation 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.
Integrate public spaces
The central avenue of St. Petersburg was famous for its green benches, as they were a symbol of relaxation and sent a welcome message to the city. But as in many other public spaces, the message to African Americans was quite different.
Although the work of African Americans was important to St. Petersburg’s growth, their presence was unwanted, Reese said. As the black population grew, so did the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.
“Racial and social segregation was strictly enforced, and at one time St. Petersburg was one of the most residential cities in the country,” Reese said. “The benches were only for the pleasure of white people. Benches were off limits to African Americans, as were most recreational facilities, food outlets, theaters, and in many cases public restrooms in places of business.
In 1954, Dr. Robert Swain, Jr., a dentist, civil rights activist, civic leader, and owner of the Robert James Hotel in Methodist Town and other city properties, challenged the red line policy that prevented African Americans to live or operate. shops on the south side of 15th Avenue.
Swain crossed the line and opened a dental practice and a small apartment building originally intended to house black baseball players on the southwest corner of 22nd Street and 15th Avenue South. The city initially refused to issue building permits, but backed down when Swain threatened to sue.
On November 30, 1955, the day before Rosa Parks actually launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, black leaders in St. Petersburg filed a lawsuit to incorporate the downtown Spa beach and pool. The episode sparked more than a decade of spirited desegregation efforts, which included the picketing of segregated movie theaters, a strike by black sanitation workers, and a lawsuit against the city by black police officers for equal treatment.
Ralph M. Wimbish, a physician, civic leader, and civil rights activist, served as president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during a time of strife, turmoil and determination to challenge the city. segregation laws.
During the civil rights struggle, the Reverend Enoch Douglas Davis worked to end busing, school segregation, and employee discrimination to gain the right to vote for blacks and to open the beaches and public swimming pools of the city to the black community, Reese said.
“He also conducted his share of sit-ins at food counters and theaters. When the Freedom Riders came to Florida in the late 1950s to protest interstate segregation laws, Reverend Davis allowed them to stay in his home and use the church as their headquarters,” said Reese. “With the help of his brother, the police and several neighbours, he offered them protection from the agitated segregationists. He received several death threats for this work and other civil rights.
When black garbage collectors marched during a 116-day strike against the city in 1968, Davis marched with them. His civil rights work has earned him 11 accolades. Today, the Enoch Davis Center – a multi-purpose community center with a library and science center, a 250-seat auditorium, and offices – bears his name.
In St Augustine, in 1964, blacks tried to integrate a hotel reserved for whites by swimming in its swimming pool. A dramatic news photo of the hotel owner pouring acid into the water horrified the nation and encouraged President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act the next day. Even when the laws changed, de facto segregation, discrimination, harassment and threatening behavior remained common practice.
In 1965, black police officers were only allowed to patrol predominantly black neighborhoods and had no authority to arrest white citizens. The 12 Courageous were 12 of 15 black St. Petersburg police officers who sued the city for the right to patrol white communities and arrest white people, just like their white counterparts.
They were Adam Baker, Freddie Crawford, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Holland, Leon Jackson, Jr., Robert Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathaniel Wooten.
On May 11, 1965, a year after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the group led by Freddie Crawford and represented by attorney James Sanderlin filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court. On August 1, 1968, the officers won their case. Their courageous act opened the door for black police officers in this city and across the country.
To date, Leon Jackson, Jr., the first black officer assigned to an all-white neighborhood, is the last surviving member of the Courageous 12. A plaque honoring the group hangs at St. Petersburg Police Headquarters, and soon a monument dedicated to them will be included in the makeover of the old headquarters.
Joseph E. Savage, a sanitation worker, led a movement that led to 211 to 300 of his colleagues quitting their jobs in May 1968. This was just over a month after Dr. Martin’s assassination Luther King, Jr. on April 4. , 1968, in Memphis.
Dr. King was in Memphis to support and bring attention to a strike by more than 1,300 sanitation workers in the city. Dr. King’s brother, Reverend AD King, came to St. Petersburg to support the workers here, as did Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy. The strike for better wages and working conditions lasted 116 days, during which racial tensions flared in various ways.
The strike is considered a milestone in local civil rights history. The following year, C. Bette Wimbish, the first black council member, was elected, and a few years later, James B. Sanderlin, the young lawyer representing the strikers, was elected as Pinellas County’s first black judge.
Fighting Racist Representation
In December 1966, activist Joe Waller, later known as Omali Yeshitela, ripped a mural from the walls of City Hall. He was arrested and his trial and appeals lasted five years, with his attorneys arguing all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
“The mural depicted a group of black troubadours, musicians, entertaining white picnickers at Passe-a-Grille Beach,” Reese explained. “The mural was a caricature of black people, depicting them with oversized heads and huge pink lips, smiling while strumming banjos. The mural was considered racially offensive and denigrating by many in the black community. »
Waller served at least 22 months in prison and was barred from voting until his rights were reinstated in 2000. Many regard his action as the spark that reignited the civil rights movement in St. Petersburg . A plaque commemorating this action will be installed on the wall of City Hall where the mural once hung.
There is a history of misrepresentations, omissions, and disrespect for black citizens in mainstream white media across the country. Black-owned newspapers were created to give the community its own voice. In St. Petersburg, The weekly challenger journal has documented the vibrant history of the African American community for over 50 years.
In 1967, Cleveland Johnson, Jr., the paper’s founder and publisher, purchased what would become The weekly challenger by MC Fontaine. Johnson expanded the newspaper from a few pages to 32, including eight color pages, and renamed the newspaper as one whose primary focus was to highlight African American news, both local and national.
The newspaper informed the black community about events related to the civil rights movement, school desegregation, local events, church news, entertainment news, and news of the life and death of members of the local community.
The legacy of The weekly challenger The newspaper lives on and holds a place of respect and honor in the hearts of many in the African-American community.
In the final installment of this four-part series, we will explore LGBTQ+ rights, school segregation, and disability rights.