The Gas Plant/Laurel Park Reunion is scheduled this Sunday, Dec. 12, from noon until 3 p.m. Participants will have the option to attend in person in Parking Lot 4 of Tropicana Field or virtually via Zoom or Facebook.
BY JEFFERY L. PEATEN III, Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG — When construction began on the Florida Suncoast Dome, now known as Tropicana Field, more than 30 years ago, Delores Jackson lived in what was the Laurel Park neighborhood. She was, however, more than just a resident. She was a leader and a powerful voice in the African-American community, always ready to offer a helping hand to others and stand up for what she knew was right.
“She loved life and would do anything to help anyone,” remembered Nadine Merriweather, one of Jackson’s five surviving siblings. “She was a great woman who loved her family and extended that love to other people.”
Jackson, affectionately known as “Dee Dee” to family and friends, was the daughter of Otis and Nora Bell Jackson. Born on Sept. 25, 1947, the fifth of nine children, she had six sisters and three brothers.
Graduating with the Gibbs High School Class of 1966 and moving to the Laurel Park neighborhood in 1974, she raised two sons, Corey and Christian. During her time as a Laurel Park resident, she developed a reputation as a leader and community advocate.
“If I had to pick two words to describe my sister, I’d say she believed in fairness and integrity,” said Daisy Lawson, Jackson’s eldest sister.
Originally known as the Royal Court Apartments, Laurel Park was a public housing complex built in the 1940s. It was acquired by the city in 1988 and would ultimately be demolished so the land could be used as a parking lot for Tropicana Field.
Along with the Gas Plant neighborhood, Laurel Park was in the heart of St. Petersburg’s African- American community. Both areas were thriving communities and had rich histories.
Jackson’s legacy is a crucial part of that history. She fought tirelessly for her community and was a champion in the struggle to save Laurel Park from demolition. Above all, she was consistent and unwavering as an advocate for the poor, the uneducated, the elderly, and anyone else in need.
“Dee Dee believed everyone should be treated equally regardless of financial status or education,” continued Lawson. “She was a motivator and shaker.”
Although living conditions in Laurel Park had deteriorated by the time the city broke ground for Tropicana Field in 1988, Jackson never stopped fighting to ensure her fellow residents were treated with dignity and fairness. Jackson was amongst the last remaining Laurel Park tenants when she began a petition drive for medical coverage after learning of the high levels of asbestos in the neighborhood’s apartment units.
When tenants were finally forced to relocate, and the city provided a fraction of what was promised for moving expenses, again, it was Jackson who stood up for her fellow residents and demanded that the city keep its promises.
Even after most of the residents departed, as president of the Laurel Park Tenants Association, it was Jackson who pushed Jack Kemp, then- secretary of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to investigate allegations of misuse of federal dollars by the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.
“Dee Dee advocated for anyone who was being treated unfairly,” asserted Lawson. “She was an advocate for parents whose kids were being treated unfairly. She’d even go to the schools with the parents. She’d stand and speak for parents, senior citizens. She was eloquent, tasteful, and determined.”
Now former residents and their direct descendants of Laurel Park have a unique opportunity to talk about the neighborhood’s history and honor the legacy of community leaders such as Jackson.
Voices Heard, Voices Matter of the Bloomberg Harvard group has partnered with the African American Heritage Association, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, the Institute on Black Life at the University of South Florida, Premier Eye Care, and the Rays Baseball Foundation/Rowdies Soccer Fund to organize a reunion of the Laurel Park and Gas Plant neighborhoods.
Like Laurel Park, the Gas Plant neighborhood was demolished to make way for Tropicana Field.
This Sunday, Dec. 12, the reunion will celebrate the rich history of these two African-American neighborhoods. The reunion also takes place as the city prepares for the transition of mayoral administrations.
Current Mayor Rick Kriseman is preparing to leave office, and Mayor-Elect Ken Welch is organizing his incoming team. The timing of the reunion also coincides with Mayor Kriseman’s announcement last Thursday that Midtown Development, a real estate investment firm based in Miami, is his pick to redevelop Tropicana Field and the land surrounding it.
Her sisters agree that Jackson would be overjoyed about the Gas Plant/Laurel Park reunion. They also believe that she would be humbled to be honored as a leader in the African American community.
“She would be really happy,” said Jacqueline Anderson, one of Jackson’s younger sisters. “She would be so humbled and thankful.”
Anderson and her sisters also believe the reunion is a great way to ensure that the community knows about Laurel Park and those, like her sister, who lived there and stood up for what was right.
“Delores truly was an advocate,” continued Anderson, “Our mom raised us to have a relationship with the Lord and to love the Lord. We held onto that. We were raised in the church, and when you’re grown, that stays with you. With that, my sister knew the right way to treat others and respect others.”
According to her sisters, Jackson’s leadership and willingness to help those in need was not all that she was known for. She was, like their mother Nora Bell Jackson, an excellent cook.
“Her turnip greens. Everybody wanted that!” remembered Anderson as she and her sisters smiled. “And she made the best sweet tea. These places now can’t compare.”
“Dee Dee’s cooking was a way to make people comfortable and open up,” added Barbara Stockton, Jackson’s youngest surviving sister. She fondly remembers spending Friday nights with her older sister eating seafood.
“I was in college and spent a lot of time with my sister. She made the tea, and we had crabs every Friday. She would call and say, ‘Barbara, don’t forget the crabs.’ I ate so many, I don’t like eating them anymore,” recalled Stockton as she and her sisters laughed. “She would say to her neighbor, ‘You want some crabs?’ even though we didn’t have enough for a third person. Whatever she had, she’d always share with others.”
And when a neighbor needed help with the rent?
“If a neighbor were short on rent,” recalled Stockton, “she’d go in her purse and help.”
Lawson said her sister believed in financial responsibility. Rent had to be paid on the first of the month even though many elderly residents were constrained budgets.
“Their checks didn’t always come in by the due date, so Dee Dee would help any way that she could,” stated Lawson. “She’d advocate for residents who needed a few extra days to pay rent. She stood up for and took the lead on helping with financial inequities.”
Jackson passed away on Nov. 2, 2006. In addition to her sisters, Lawson, Merriweather, Anderson, and Stockton, she is survived by a younger brother and her sons, Corey and Christian.
“Her legacy will live on,” concluded Stockton, as she and her sisters smiled. “She loved to laugh and cook.”
“Dee Dee loved people,” added Merriweather. “She loved life, and more than anything, she loved the Lord.”
The Gas Plant/Laurel Park Reunion is scheduled this Sunday, Dec. 12, from noon until 3 p.m. Participants will have the option to attend in person or virtually via Zoom and Facebook live stream.
Onsite activities will occur in the Tropicana Field Parking Lot 4 and will include entertainment, food (served on-site and delivered to virtual attendees) and resident sharing of memories and photographs.
The winners of the Gas Plant & Laurel Park Reunion essay contest for students from John Hopkins Middle School, Gibbs, and St. Petersburg High Schools will also be announced. The event will also include unveiling a commemorative Gas Plant/Laurel Park mural painted by students of the after-school program at Campbell Park Recreation Center in collaboration with renowned local artists and muralists Carlos Culbertson (Zulu Painter), Jabari Reed (iBOMS), and Reid Jenkins.
“We will be there,” proclaimed Anderson when asked about attending the reunion, as she and her sisters beamed with anticipation.
Those who wish to attend can register by clicking here or calling (727) 371-6153 for more information. The registration deadline is Dec. 10. There is no cost to attend.
“My sister loved people, no matter how young, how old, or what color they were,” continued Anderson. “Didn’t matter where you came from.”
“If she were still with us,” added Lawson while her sisters made gestures in agreeance, “Dee Dee would still be advocating. She’d still be advocating for people, for fairness.”