BY JON WILSON, Columnist
The community has lost a treasure trove of history and wisdom with the passing of Paul Barco, a longtime 22nd Street South resident and entrepreneur, on April 8. He was 97.
Mr. Barco, whose parents came to St. Petersburg in the very early 1900s, witnessed strict segregation that made 22nd Street a major community thoroughfare and integration that changed the street and its neighborhood.
He was among the last surviving business people who operated a store along the Deuces in its heyday. Mr. Barco’s first grocery store was on Seventh Avenue South, but in the 1950s, he opened one at 924 22nd St. S. He and his family lived in an apartment above the store.
Mr. Barco was born in 1916, delivered by midwife Carrie Zanders. As a youngster, he lived with his family in a country area known as Moccasin Bottom, not far from today’s Melrose Elementary School. He once told a reporter that as a boy, he could hear axes ringing as men cleared property for new development.
“All of them wore high boots to protect against diamondbacks,” he said.
During an interview many years ago, Mr. Barco recalled that in the early 20th century, segregation had yet to take a brutal hold on St. Petersburg. He said his parents had been able to sit on benches in Williams Park downtown.
“My daddy said when he came to this city, if you had to go to a doctor, you went on over to the doctor,” Mr. Barco said. “He had one waiting room there, he waited on whoever was there. But my dad said as these persons came down who had a great amount of finance, and had been exposed to a great deal of literary training, then these people felt they didn’t care to sit in the same room with black people.”
Early city directories support the idea that the new town of St. Petersburg had yet to be segregated. One from 1900 does not suggest strict racial boundaries, although the seeds of what would become African-American neighborhoods can be seen.
Mr. Barco saw 22nd Street change when integration began replacing Jim Crow ways in the 1960s. While he agreed that the coming of Interstate 275 in the 1970s hurt the neighborhood’s cohesion, he said that it was the earlier integration that provided the most intense dynamic of change.
“It was like shooting into a covey of birds,” he said. “Everywhere people could go, they were gone.” Restricted for generations, people suddenly saw new opportunity and many left black neighborhoods simply because they could, he said.
It was an era when many 22nd Street institutions, such as Mercy Hospital and the Manhattan Casino, closed.
But Mr. Barco chose to stay. He remained active in the community until recently, attending a few meetings of the African American Heritage Association.
Until not long ago, he was a familiar sight in the morning. As the sun rose and traffic began to pick up, Mr. Barco could be seen in front of his apartment, sweeping the sidewalk.