A Panormic Glimpse|
of Black History in St. Petersburg
By ERNEST PONDER
A race is like a man. Until it recognizes its own talents, takes pride in its own history, loves its own memories and appreciates its own heroes, it can never fulfill itself completely.
The history of the black community in St. Petersburg is like the glimmer of a darting snowflake, seen clearly only for a short while and quickly flickers away.
Thus a search for the history of Methodist Town, of the southside of Central Avenue and Pepper Town results in a configuration of pieces here and there.
From these bits and pieces we gather the history of blacks in St. Petersburg began when Louis Bell, a white pioneer, brought two black workers with him in 1868. They were John Donaldson and Anna Germain.
According to Karl H. Grismer, in "The Story of St. Petersburg" Donaldson bought 40 acres of land from the state in 1871 after Bell apparently sold out. The land was on what is now Tangerine Avenue on 18th Avenue South.
John A. Bethell in his "History of the Pinellas Peninsular" pointed out that Donaldson married Anna Germain, Bell's housekeeper, who had come with Donaldson in 1868.
Donaldson cleared and fenced about five acres, planted it in cane, sweet potatoes and garden truck for the Tampa market. He also bought some cattle and hogs and set out a small orange grove.
John Donaldson was a worthy Negro settler and for years the only Negro settler on Pinellas Pointa man universally respected and one who kept pace with his white neighbors.
Walter P. Fuller real estate man and historian, was quoted by Robert Latta writing for the St. Petersburg Times as saying "there was no negative feeling between black and white people then. No, no there was no color feeling." He told of Donaldson's son Ed, who went to the first school here, near Gulfport. "There were white children and black children at the school and nobody thought anything about it."
Strong feelings about blacks and whites didn't develop until the question of voting came up in the 1870's Fuller added.
David Watt an early St. Petersburg settler, tells of the coming of the black graders for theOrange Belt Railway. These were the blacks who made cuts and fills for the roadbed. They brought in their families and established the First Negro Community along Fourth Avenue South between Seventh and Ninth Streets, south of the railroad tracks. The community became known as Pepper Town. Fuller said Pepper Town was a well recognized community back in the 1920's and prior. It is part of the Gas Plant area today.
After 1900, most black newcomers settled west of Ninth Street, north of Central Avenue, what was to become Methodist Town.
Grismer said the Negro areas that developed had their own stores, churches, meeting places and schools. Apparently the oldest church was Bethel AME organized in 1894. The church members met in a temporary building at 10th Street and Third Avenue North, until a stone church was built on the site in 1905. The first pastor was Rev. J.S. Braswell. the present structure was erected in 1922 during the pastorate of Rev. S.A. Williams.
Rosemary Brown recalls the words of Lena Reynolds, an old time pillar of Methodist Town, "Oh Lord we was so happy and glad cause we was getting us a church. I remember that day." She had reference to the Tenth Street Church of god 1913.
Karen Loeb a contributor to "St. Petersburg's Historic Site" interviewed Matthews Coley who knew a great deal about another early church in Methodist Town, Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church. Matthews Coley told Mrs. Loeb that the original church was built in 1915, put together from two wooden houses standing across the street from where the church ended up.
Coley referred to the Rev. Oliver B. Bartley who was pastor for 38 years and remarked that "he was one of the greatest preachers ever was."
Dick Bothwell points out in his book Sunrise 200 that when the city' elaborate show place, the LaPlaza Theatre was opened in 1913, blacks enjoyed the shows tooalthough many whites did not know it. Blacks sat in a balcony high in the rear of the theatre, reached by a steep stairway with a separate box office.
Chester L. James, Sr., came to St. Petersburg in 1911. He was a tireless worker for people for decades. So much so that the city council changed the name of the city's oldest Ghetto, Methodist Town, to Jamestown when redevelopment work began here in 1974. The Complex of 65 townhouses, community center and park opened in 1976. The James Park, a complex of 82 units, opened in 1981.
So much has been said of Chester James, Sr. that it is difficult to adequately describe him. Perhaps Sam and Verdya Robinson came very close to a description. "Faithful to his community responsibilities," he was one of the people who kept our city moving ahead. He was an outstanding community activist and friend who will always be remembered and recognized as a human rights leader. His life exemplified concern, dedication, service and integrity.Many citizens remember Elder Elijah Moore, who hawked his produce and peanuts with a selling call "I got em." A showman, he wore a distinctive top hat and a swallowtail coat at all times.
Moore, who came here in 1912 from Columbia, S.C., was 92 when he died in 1972. Tall, proud, deeply religious, he kept busy almost to the end.
Davis Elementary, the oldest and only public school for blacks, was opened in 1910 at Third Avenue South and 10th Street. Early principals were Mr. G.T. Wiggins, Mrs. Emma Booker, Mrs. Regina Blye, John Hopkins, Amanda Howard and William Thompson.
Elder Jordan, Sr., the first chairman of trustees for black schools and others spearheaded a drive to establish a school in the Jordan Park area. A Mr. Victor A. Boeke made the low bid of $40,669 on July 15, 1924, to build Jordan School. When it was occupied on September 1, 1925, by almost 1100 students, 21 teachers and G.W. Perkins as principal, a milestone in Negro education had been reached in Florida. The older Davis Academic had simply been unable to provide for all the Negro youths of St. Petersburg. Early principals at Jordan were: G.W.Perkins, Mrs. Marie Pierce, Emanuel Stewart, Louis McCoy and Fred Burney.
Gibbs High School originally built as 34th Street Colored Elementary School began as an eightclassroom unit in 1927. Under the leadership of G.W. Perkins, the community established a library and an auditoriumgymnasium just south of the school across Ninth Avenue. the original plant was enlarged many times to include additional permanent and portable classrooms and a vocational unit to accommodate grades 712. Principals serving Gibbs were Samuel Reed, G.W. Perkins, Noah Griffin, Mrs. Theresa McKinney, Rev. John Carter, Andrew Polk, John Rembert, Emanuel Stewart and Cecil Keene.
During the 20's a number of black businesses and establishments were visible in the black community. Elder Jordan, Jr., owned and operated a bus company that carried passengers between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Jordan later established the first beach for blacks in an area north of St. Petersburg named Jordan Beach.
Dr. Chesley Williams had a pharmacy and Major Jones and Janie Jones operated a hotel retreat on Second Avenue where Webbs City was to be located later. There were businesses Bradley Shoe Shop, Hughes and Scrivens grocery to name a few.
Mr. Edward McRae and his nephew Monroe McRae came from Tampa in 1928 to establish the McRae Fulford Funeral Home on 5th Avenue South. It later became the McRae Funeral Home which he headed until his death in 1957.
Active in civic affairs he was founder and sponsor of the Cee Jays. He founded the Odd Brothers Club, a group of men of all faiths. He was cited several times for outstanding civic and religious contributions. Alfred "Bill" Williams, Sr., and his wife Essie opened their shoe service shop on First Alley North, September 14, 1929. Orphaned at 5 "Bill" knew the value of education. He and his wife put their four children through college before he died in 1971. He was a respected member of the business community.
© 1998 Olive B. McLin Neighborhood Family Center and University of South Florida. All rights reserved.|
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