John Donaldson aboard an ox cart in 1885.
By Gwendolyn Reese
I haven’t forgotten part 2 of the story of Mercy Hospital, but Senator Darryl Rouson recently reminded me that this year marks the 150th anniversary of a very significant event in our city’s history and in local African-American history. We cannot let the year end without commemorating this event and so I have chosen to share that story in this column. In two weeks, I will complete the Mercy Hospital story.
In 1868, 150 years ago this year, John Donaldson and Anna Germain became the first African- Americans to settle permanently in lower Pinellas, what would become St. Petersburg.
Donaldson arrived shortly after the end of the Civil War by oxcart to work with homesteader Louis Bell, Jr. He met Anna Germaine who also worked for Bell. They married and moved to their own homestead; 40 acres of land about a mile northwest of Lake Maggiore in a section of the city now known as Midtown.
Donaldson, a formerly enslaved person from Alabama, played a significant role in the history of this city. He worked on the construction of the Detroit Hotel and the Railroad Pier.
It is said that he signed the petition for St. Petersburg to secede from Hillsborough County, which had long neglected the Pinellas Peninsula. A petition was circulated in 1907, and after four years of battling, Pinellas won its fight for independence and according to one source on January 1, 1912, Pinellas County came into being.
Because his homestead was isolated and quite distant from other settlers, he was “tolerated” among the white population. According to early settler John Bethell, Donaldson was “a man universally respected and one who really kept pace with his white neighbors.”
According to some sources, both John Donaldson and his wife Anna Germain Donaldson are buried in Glen Oaks Cemetery in south St. Petersburg.
In my search for more information about the Donaldson family, I found very little information. In the nine books in my personal library, only three mentioned Donaldson; two with pictures and captions only and one in a timeline.
This dearth of information may best be summed up by this statement in the publication “Pinellas County Historical Background,” “The historical documentation of African Americans in Pinellas still lags behind white settlers’ stories.”
Michaels, W. (2012) The Making of St. Petersburg, Charleston, SC. The History Press.
Peck, R. & Wilson, J. (2008) St. Petersburg’s Historic African American Neighborhoods, Charleston, SC. The History Press.
Schnur, J.A. (1966) Recovering and Discovering Our Past: The African-American Experience in St. Petersburg. Retrieved from http://digital.usfsp.edu/fac_publications
Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners. (December 2008) Pinellas County Historical Background 3rd Edition. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from www.pinellascounty.org/plan/pdf_files/pchb.pdf