St. Petersburg's neglected past 

Will the city find a way to commemorate its civil rights history?

Last month, on a trip led by USF St. Petersburg Professor Raymond Arsenault, I joined a group of about 40 students from area colleges to retrace the route of the Freedom Riders. Arsenault's celebrated book on the subject, and the critically acclaimed (and Oprah-approved) documentary film it inspired, have shed new light on these courageous young civil rights activists and their bus rides through the Deep South in the 1960s. To travel the same roads and visit the same sites where they risked their lives for racial equality was both inspiring and harrowing.

But we were surprised, as we toured the landscape of Jim Crow and its aftermath in our air-conditioned bus, at the lack of memorials. In Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery, Anniston, Selma, Atlanta, we met people doing everything they could to preserve a record of the past. But with little funding, and strong resistance from those wanting to forget an ugly past, some struggled to keep the history alive. In Nashville, where members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were taunted, beaten and jailed for staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, you'd never know anything of historic note had happened but the rise of the Grand Ole Opry.

"You can’t see the bloodstains anymore," said former aide to Robert Kennedy and journalist John Seiganthaler, who was knocked unconscious by an angry mob attacking the Freedom Riders in Montgomery.

I found, when I returned home, that the same was true in St. Petersburg.

A city-sanctioned mural once hung in St. Petersburg City Hall that depicted African-Americans cheerfully serving white picnickers. In 1966 a young black man named Joe Waller famously tore down that mural, running through the streets of St. Pete with it until he was arrested for civil disobedience. He ended up serving two and a half years in jail.

In 1999 the city asked Arsenault to assist in creating a plaque to honor and formally apologize to Waller, now Omali Yeshitela, founder of the Uhuru movement. Arsenault says he got so far as writing the text for the plaque, but some Council members felt Yeshitela's racial views were too radical, a divided City Council voted 4-4, and the issue was never resolved.

"I don't know if that controversy made people gun-shy about markers that would commemorate things in civil rights and African-American history," says Arsenault.

Some milestones have been observed: In 2006, for instance, the city's sanitation complex was dedicated to Joseph Savage, who organized a five-month march in 1968 for equal pay and better working conditions for St. Pete's African-American sanitation workers.

But so much more has happened, from sit-ins by African-Americans at the segregated Webb City department store to a visit by the Freedom Riders. "We are starting from a low base and have quite a bit to do," says Arsenault.

In June of 1961, a Freedom Ride from Washington D.C. ended in St. Petersburg. Arsenault's book notes that, at the time the rides arrived, the city had only recently proposed desegregation of accommodations for Major League baseball players during spring training.

"Civil rights tourism is a fairly recent concept," Arsenault observes. "It seems obvious for Civil War battlefields, but civil rights?"

He notes that historic markers cost between $1,500-$4,000, and that those that are installed risk spreading erroneous information if they're not created with input from professional historians.

But there are indications that an African-American historical marker initiative by the city is in the works, though the project is still in its infancy.

"It's part of a more general problem that the city has to think of itself as a historical city, even though it's not Charleston or Boston or Savannah," Arsenault says. "It doesn’t have a 300-year history, but it does have a 100-year-plus history, and a lot happened here."

A significant portion of that history is contained in the Carter Woodson African-American Museum, located in St. Pete's Jordan Park neighborhood at Ninth Avenue South and 22nd Street, once the Main Street of the city's African-American community. Home to the Manhattan Casino, the Royal Theatre and the train station, 22nd was bisected by I-275 in the 1970s in an expansion that destroyed many homes, businesses and churches.

The museum sits directly across from the rumbling traffic of I-275, in a property donated by the Housing Authority about four years ago. Inside, an exhibition entitled "Jazz on the Deuces" recalls the 22nd Street that used to be, via photos of musicians who played at the Manhattan Casino.

"This isn't a profession," says Terri Lipsey Scott, who chairs the board of trustees. "It's a passion." Since the museum has no full-time staff, everyone including Scott is a volunteer. (A board member, the St. Pete Times' Neighborhood Times Editor, Sandra Gadsden, helped the museum gain access to the photos.)

Thanks to the property donation, the museum pays no rent, but money's still needed to keep the lights and water on. And funding is a struggle.

"We are the most depressed museum in a city known for its museums," says Scott.

By day, Scott works as a city administrator. Three years ago, she was part of a Leadership St. Pete group who chose the Woodson Museum as their class project. She found her personal project in the empty dirt lot behind the museum.

"When we came here, this lot looked like Baghdad," Scott remembers. "It was just sand and a couple trees."

The group sold bricks to raise money to create a garden in the back of the museum. Jesse Owens of the recently closed Savanna's Nursery donated all the plants and flowers.

"There was a lot of praying and crying to get this museum and the garden going," Scott says.

The garden is a revenue generator, a fine spot for jazz concerts under the shade of oaks and magnolias. Without money to pay for any fulltime staffers, though, the museum doesn't qualify for most grants, so private donations are crucial.

Getting major donors like those who've invested in St. Pete's larger museums is no easy task.

"When the Dalì or the Museum of Fine Arts come up with something creative, people see the value," Scott says. "We just need one to give us that stamp of approval and we'll be okay."

Two years ago, a Legends Ball raised $40,000, but much of those funds have been depleted paying for utilities. Now board members are using personal checks to the keep the facility afloat.

"It saddens me on several levels. I'm convinced there is more the African-American community can do," says Scott. "But also there is a responsibility for the community at large."

But she also sees the problem as cultural, a tendency in African-American culture not to give to the arts. "If we don't recognize our own worth, it's hard to convince others."

Scott says a summer jazz series is in the works and she hopes to plan another Legends Ball soon.

In a city that has neglected a vital part of its past, the Woodson could be an important resource.

"There is a lot of potential for the museum to serve as a touchstone for civil rights here," says Ray Arsenault (also a Woodson trustee).

"This history is important,” Scott points out. “If we don't tell it, it won't be told."

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