Hidden History: Remembering Dr. Leggett

Dr. Gilbert Henry Leggett is remembered fondly as an African-American dental pioneer in St. Petersburg.

A native of Key West, Dr. Leggett graduated from Nashville’s Meharry Medical and Dental College in 1924. The school was the first dental school in the South for African Americans.

After briefly practicing in Jacksonville, Dr. Leggett opened his practice in St. Petersburg in 1925. His first office was across the street from the Webb’s City furniture store on Second Avenue South. In 1959, he moved his office to 2154 9th Ave. S.That site will be remembered on the heritage trail currently being developed by the African American Heritage Association.

In addition to providing dental care for a growing black community, Dr. Leggett was a busy civic activist. He helped found the Melrose Park YMCA and was instrumental in bringing scouting to the community. He is perhaps most famously known for his early civil rights leadership in the city.

During the 1940s, he led the legal action that struck down the white Democratic primary in St. Petersburg. In a 2011 article, the St. Petersburg Times — now the Tampa Bay Times – named Dr. Leggett among five people who made a difference in Pinellas County’s first century of existence.

Dr. Leggett’s wife Altaire Leggett taught school and was widely regarded in the community as a PTA enthusiast and a social leader. She served as an executive committee member of the Gibbs High School PTA for years and was president of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Links chapter.

The Leggett community contributions continued through Gilbert H. Leggett’s son, Dr. Gilbert Martin Leggett, who was affectionately known as Sonny. The father-and-son team worked together in the Ninth Avenue office. The younger Dr. Leggett taught math at Gibbs before following in his father’s footsteps and earning a degree in dentistry at Meharry. A 1947 Gibbs graduate, he served as a recreation leader for children. His wife Daisy worked as a dental assistant for another acclaimed community leader, Dr. Robert J. Swain. Dr. Leggett joined his father in 1963 at the Ninth Avenue office, and a “grand reopening” was held to mark the occasion.

Sonny Leggett had a reputation in the community for extending special care to indigent residents. A friend once said of him: “It was not unheard of for him to be working away late at night on people he knew would never be able to pay him a dime.” The younger doctor also built a reputation for being an outspoken critic of Pinellas County school officials during the early days of desegregation. He also frequently criticized the police department regarding its relationship to the black community, and was an active participant in the Community Alliance.

A 1971 feature article in the Times described him this way: “A man in the middle — both respected by the white power structure, which is committed to building upon tradition, and loved by the meek as well as the most militant blacks, who are determined to crack the white man’s double standard.”

This is another in a series of articles about the individuals, events and places that are being recognized by the African American Heritage Association.

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