St. Pete project calls on African-American residents to share their memories

03/27/12 Janelle Irwin
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St. Petersburg officials are preserving its rich African-American history with a walking trail. A group working on the project is reaching out to long-time residents of the city to compile stories straight from the source.

The trail will be completed in two phases. The first will run along 22nd Street South. The second phase will branch out to other historical sites throughout the city south of Central Avenue. One of the sites likely to be included along the trail is Webb’s City. It was a department store of sorts that opened in 1925 and took up much of the area between 2nd and 4th Avenue South from 7th to 10th street. It closed its doors in the late 1970s, but St. Petersburg native Ada Davis remembers it fondly.

“I can think of going to Webb City, walking from the Southside to Webb City and getting ice cream. And my girlfriend and I, we followed this white girl and this girl asked the lady, ‘where do you want me to dump these two’. All of us were the same age, but she felt that we were different. But, we stood the test. We went and got our ice cream and we walked from Webb City to the Southside in St. Petersburg, Florida. And it was a very, very hot day when we went to walk to Webb City."

Was that the best ice cream you ever had?

“Webb City had the best ice cream. You got a cone for 5 cents and it was rich. Webb City was a place we considered an outing for us because we had nothing else.”

Gathering stories like Ada’s has been the central goal of the African-American Heritage project. Gwen Reece, leader of the project’s steering committee, has been reaching out to people in the community to find as much buried information as possible. But she also comes to the table with some stories and ideas of her own.

“As an African-American that was also born and raised in St. Petersburg, I have one up on Wayne because I was born in a house behind Mercy Hospital, delivered by a mid-wife, her name was Mrs. Gas. So, we have a rich history of mid-wives in this city because Goliath Davis was delivered by? Ms. Roxanne. How many others in here were delivered by mid-wives?"

And to that the room full of about two dozen African-American residents of St. Pete raised their hands and shouted the names of mid-wives. Mattie Wright was one of them. She was delivered by the same woman as former St. Petersburg police chief Goliath Davis III.

“We was the first class to graduate from 16th Street Middle School – 16th Street School then – and the first ones to graduate from the auditorium at Gibbs High – they’ve redone everything. And I lived in that area for 70-plus years."

The project was initiated by St. Petersburg’s current mayor Bill Foster.

“This project is about you, is owned by you and I want it to come out of the community. It’s about people, places and events. These moments in time, that if we don’t document it now, could be forever lost.”

And Foster came with his own memories of the city he now leads.

“My grandmother used to tell me about how the mayor of St. Petersburg was the first one to get city water and all the neighborhood people came with their buckets to turn the spigot at the mayor’s house because nobody else had water. And there are people that are in this city that still have those eyewitness accounts, but we’ve got to document it.”

But not everyone came to share their stories. Michele Tyrrell is a historian with the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in downtown St. Pete.

“Our most specific interest right now in the diversity area, is knowing when hotels in St. Petersburg started hiring African-Americans. We can find no real records of that."

Almost sarcastically, Ada Davis interrupted; that’s why so many African-American families migrated to the area. After offering to help find pictures and records, Davis remembered another story from her childhood in St. Pete.

“My girlfriend and I walked down to the corner and this was where Henderson’s Drugstore was. And while I was there – I was talking to my friend – and I walked backwards and got hit by a car. And I was so afraid to tell my mom. And the guy said, ‘oh, we have to take you’ and I said, ‘no, you can’t take me home.’”

The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by December. Sometime after that, planners hope to put up markers that will illustrate a site’s significance. Another community outreach meeting is scheduled for March 29 at 6 p.m. at Bethel AME Church on 3rd Avenue North. That African Methodist Episcopal Church is where the area’s nickname Methodist Town came from.

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