BY JON WILSON, Columnist
Campbell Park has been an important community recreation asset since 1928, when a one-story building was constructed on 16th Street South between Sixth and Seventh Avenues Diamond Mutual Progressive Club.
Two years earlier, Thomas C. Campbell, owner of the property, had leased the land to St. Petersburg’s Park Board to establish a recreation center for the African-American community.
Campbell, a Pennsylvanian, moved to St. Petersburg in 1918, when real estate investment was on the verge of creating the 1920’s boom. A downtown hotel owner, Campbell bought land between 12th and 16th Streets South and Fifth and Ninth Avenues. It was to be used as a subdivision for black residents, with a portion set aside for a park.
Through the years, Campbell Park has served as a venue for sports events, fairs and carnivals, parades, glee club concerts, conventions, picnics, story hours and even a dance hall called The Dreamland during the 1930s. Gibbs High School played its early football games there, as did black professional and semi-professional baseball teams.
To say the athletic fields were not always impeccably groomed is an understatement. Collectively, they were often called the “Dust Bowl.” But they belonged to the community and provided years of good times during an era marked by strict and often brutal segregation.
By 1928, a small library was established, and by 1929 baseball team called the Sunshine Babies held practices and played games in the park. In fact, it was in 1929 that the rickety stands collapsed during a Babies game against the Atlanta Black Giants. No one was injured. A year later, St. Petersburg’s professional Florida Stars won the state baseball championship for African-American teams and conducted a successful barnstorming tour of the North.
In 1930, a newspaper article noted the Stars were playing the Cuban House of David, a traveling organization of bearded players. Special arrangements were made to seat white spectators, according to the article. Pap Houston, called “a speedball right-hander,” pitched for the Stars.
In 1940, Olympian Jesse Owens, playing for the Toledo Crawfords of the Negro National League, came to town for a game against the Ethiopian Clowns, an outstanding independent touring team. The team recruited several St. Petersburg residents, including Copper Knee Thompson and James Oliver, for whom the Campbell Park baseball field was named in 1972.
Through the years, numerous local teams called Campbell Park home. A few have been the Florida Monarchs, the Oliver Alouettes, the Black Saints, the Peters Palace Stars (later known as the Pelicans), the St. Petersburg Braves, the St. Petersburg Tigers and a women’s team known as the Florida Blue Stars.
In the early days, a list of team owners amounted to a virtual who’s who of prominent community men. Among them were Elder Jordan of one of the community’s founding families, and Manhattan Casino promoter and Jordan Park manager George Grogan.
Several renovations and additions enhanced the park. A recreation center and swimming pool were added. In 2006, the Tampa Bay Rays paid for a seven-month renovation of Oliver Field. A new roof was installed, as was an 18-foot high backstop, protective netting for spectators and new sod and irrigation.
Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter, attended the rededication ceremony.