I AM: The Donaldsons

The Donaldsons operated a concession stand on South Mole, a former all-black beach now known as Demens Landing.

By Gwendolyn Reese

Roxanna Simpkins Donaldson was one of Pinellas County’s traveling midwives. For more than 18 years, Donaldson, known as “Mother Roxanna Simpkins,” delivered approximately 500 babies, including Goliath Davis, former police chief and deputy mayor of St. Pete.

According to an article in Oct. of 1963 in the St. Petersburg Times, Donaldson was born in Saluda, S.C., and came to St. Petersburg during the First World War. She received her high school certificate at Davis Elementary, adult education classes.

She became a midwife because “Dr. Ponder MADE me take it up,” she said in the article.

Both her mother and grandmother had been midwives, but she had no desire to become one. As the story goes, she was forced to deliver her grandchild when the baby was born before the doctor she hired could get there. That doctor was James Maxie Ponder, and he said to her, “There aren’t many in town who can deliver a baby better than you did.”

Dr. Ponder, the first African-American doctor to practice at Mercy Hospital in the mid-1920s, kept worrying her until she finally gave in. After accompanying him on 15 deliveries, he took her to the Public Health Clinic and told them she was ready for her license. She attended monthly classes and the weekly prenatal clinic.

The Donaldsons, I AM

Donaldson was licensed by the Pinellas County Health Department and was with its midwife program until the county disbanded it in 1950. The program was for women living in rural areas that could not afford or were too far away from a doctor or hospital.

Donaldson did not approve of hospitals. She believed hospitals were for sick people with heart trouble and other “business of that kind.” She usually delivered in her home and when there were complications, she would take the patient to the hospital in her car.

It was not unusual for Donaldson to have four to five women in her home in various stages of labor. She recalled telling jokes and making the women laugh to take their minds off the labor pains. She kept them for seven days feeding them and their babies and keeping them clean. Visiting nurses would come by and check on the mothers.

Fifty dollars was the going rate for a delivery. Sometimes she was paid, sometimes she wasn’t. Sometimes the insurance companies paid, sometimes the women would pay a little each time they came to the clinic. Sometimes a woman would show up on her doorstep “in pain and no money,” but she was always ready to help.

When midwife services were discontinued in Pinellas, she became a licensed practical nurse. The prized license dated Jan. 1954 hung over the piano in her home. She served as an LPN at the Lena Anderson Reynolds Restorium for five years.

She retired to help her husband Ed Donaldson–a member of one of the pioneering black families in Pinellas County–operate a concession at South Mole, a former all-black beach.

Donaldson was very active in the community. She served in many capacities with the Pallbearers Grand Union Lodge, Royal Court No. 14, including serving as area officer and a member of the President’s Council. She was also a member of the American Woodman, Sunshine Court of Calanthes No 105 and the Community Prayer Band No.4. She was the principal speaker for St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church’s Women’s Day on January 16, 1954.

Roxanna Simpkins Donaldson died March 18, 1979

When Ed Donaldson died on November 13, 1967, he was noted as the oldest living native-born resident of St. Petersburg at that time.

In 1983, Bette Smith wrote in her St. Petersburg Times column, “Backward Glances,” “Ed Donaldson was known as Pinellas’ first native-born black male. The son of a former slave, he had very little formal education but nonetheless became a successful construction engineer. He was one of the men who literally helped build St. Petersburg.”

Donaldson’s parents, John and Anna Germain Donaldson, came to the Pinellas Peninsula by oxcart with their employer Louis Bell, Jr. and his family in 1868. Ed was the fourth of 11 children born on his parent’s 40-acre farm.

For nearly 20 years, the Donaldsons were the only black family in the area, and the children attended school with white students. By 1888 when the city’s black population began to grow, the schools were segregated.

In 1889, he was the straw boss of the construction crew that built the 1,500-foot Brantley Pier near the site of the former inverted pier. In 1899, Donaldson, employed by the H. Walter Fuller of Walter Fuller Park fame, helped supervise the construction of two U.S. Army forts, Fort Dade on Egmont Key and Ft. DeSoto on Mullet Key. According to Fuller, “Donaldson was the best construction engineer I’ve ever known.”

Gwendolyn Reese, “I AM”

In later years, he was employed by the City of St. Petersburg for 31 years. After he retired, for at least a decade, Donaldson ran the concession stand at the South Mole Beach, now known as Demens Landing. He was assisted by his wife who once said, “I am his fourth or fifth wife, and I’ll tell you one thing, I’m going to be his last.”

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