City council celebrates Black history in St. Pete

Councilwoman Deborah Figgs-Sanders honored C. Bette Wimbish and Ernest Fillyau at the Feb. 18 city council meeting.

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — At the Feb. 18 city council meeting, Councilwoman Deborah Figgs-Sanders honored two African-American trailblazers that once effected change as members of the St. Petersburg City Council: C. Bette Wimbish and Ernest Fillyau.

Senator Darryl Rouson championed the renaming of I-375 to the C. Bette Wimbish Highway, which is the portion of I-75 that runs north of Tropicana Field and ends down by the Coliseum.

In 1969, C. Bette Wimbish was the first African American elected to the St. Petersburg City Council and held the role of vice mayor from 1971 to 1973. Before her work on council, she practiced law, graduating from Florida A&M University.

She applied to other universities as well but was not accepted at the time, either based on the color of her skin or her civil rights efforts. In 1960, attorney Wimbish was the first Black candidate to run for a seat on the Pinellas County Board of Public Instruction. Although she was not elected, she received 10,000 votes, 3,800 of those from Black voters.

“It was a testament to her efforts to desegregate and envision an integrated community,” said Figgs-Sanders.

Later in her career, Mrs. Wimbish became the assistant secretary of commerce, making her the highest-ranking woman in the state government. She was also deputy secretary of commerce and ran for the state Senate.

“She never stopped trying to break ceilings,” stated Figgs-Sanders. “Wimbish was working for change and opened the door for individuals like me. Let our remembrance of her serve as a reminder of how far we have come and that our work is not yet done.”

Mrs. Wimbish passed away on Nov. 30, 2009.

Figgs-Sanders also honored professional photographer and educator turned City Councilman Ernest Fillyau.

Ernest Fillyau taking photos on the sidelines of a FAMU football game at Bragg Memorial Stadium in Tallahassee.

In 1991, Mr. Fillyau was elected to and served two four-year terms on the St. Petersburg City Council.  As a long-time resident of St. Petersburg, his passion for getting involved in his community’s decision-making stirred him to enter politics in his 60s.

Mr. Fillyau graduated from Gibbs High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice and a master’s degree in supervision and administration in adult education from Florida A&M University. He also served in the Air Force in Guam.

He was a photographer for the city’s recreational department, the Evening Independent newspaper and owned a photography studio from 1948 to 1961.

Throughout his busy career and family life, Mr. Fillyau stayed engaged with the community and civic affairs. He proposed resolutions to address the blank wall at city hall and its history and was the first manager and chief lifeguard for the Jenny Hall swimming pool at the Wildwood Recreation Center (now the Jet Jackson Recreation Center).

Mr. Fillyau became the vice president of the Southside Democrats Club, was the chairman of the city’s Goals Committee, a Perkins Elementary School PTA president, a member of the Ambassadors Club, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, a past president of the Federation of Inner City Organizations and was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars among others.

“He was considered a great leader in our community and another African-American city resident to work toward change,” said Figgs Sanders.

Mr. Fillyau passed away on April 12, 2005.

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