Hidden History: Civil Rights Advances, Part 2

Hidden History

BY JON WILSON, Columnist

Civil rights in St. Petersburg made considerable progress during the mid- and early 1960s into the 1970s. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the federal Civil Rights Act, we looked at milestones up until 1962 in last week’s article. We’ll survey the years beyond in this week’s article.

Several important strides took place during this time period, but the event that garnered the most attention was the strike of city sanitation workers in 1968. Tossing garbage in the hot, Florida sun was one of the toughest jobs a man could undertake, and in May of ’68, the workers began striking. They were led by hymn-singing, cigar-chomping Joe Savage.

Better pay, working conditions and benefits were the issues. Eventually, more than 200 men walked out in what would become a 116-day strike. A young lawyer named James Sanderlin counseled the man and often marched with them.

The strike led to unrest, and four nights of rioting occurred in August. Eventually, the strike was settled and men went back to work, winning a small wage increase.

But the strike came to be viewed as a watershed event in St. Petersburg’s freedom movement. It focused wider community interest on segregation issues and created new avenues of communication. The chamber of commerce created the biracial Community Alliance to address problems that emerged during the strike. The alliance initially included 21 white members and 12 black members.

New black leadership began to emerge in the wider community. Frank W. Peterman Sr. became the first African American in the county to win a primary election for the state legislature. Alvin Downing, a widely known musician who served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, became the first African American to serve on the city housing authority. Years later, St. Petersburg’s sanitation department headquarters was dedicated in the name of Joe Savage.

In 1969, C. Bette Wimbish, whose husband was Ralph Wimbish, became the first African Americana elected to the city council.

Sanderlin, the strikers’ lawyer, in 1972 became the first African American elected to a county judgeship. He later was elected to the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Other major developments included:

In 1964, more black patients were being admitted to previously all-white Mound Park hospital. Admission had become a matter of physician-patient choice.

In 1965, 12 African-American police officers sued their employer, the City of St. Petersburg, for the right to patrol neighborhoods other than black ones, and for the right to arrest white citizens. The officers first lost in federal court, but later won on appeal. They later became remembered in the community as the “Courageous 12.”

In 1967, Davis Elementary school closed, although there had yet to be more than token integration in Pinellas schools. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the county had built seven new black schools between 1954-1962,

In 1967, the St. Petersburg Times ended publication of the “Negro” news pages, which ended about three decades of news segregation.

In 1971, court-ordered busing formally ended segregation of schools. Pinellas is among the state’s last counties to integrate and the first to use busing as a way to achieve it. Some violence took place at Dixie Hollins and Boca Ciega high schools, but integration generally was accomplished peacefully.

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