Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, along with Vice President Jon Wilson
BY NICOLE SLAUGHTER GRAHAM, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg closed out Black History Month with a membership drive at Urban Drinkery Wine Bar.
Gwendolyn Reese, the association’s president, said it was the first event planned for a yearlong membership drive.
“We’ve done so much with so little, but there’s much more to do, and we need your help,” she said in a short speech to the group of about 30.
The Heritage Association was formalized in 2014 after the group received a city grant to create what is now known as the African American Heritage Trail, located on The Deuces. The trail chronicles the first 100 years of African American contribution, culture and community in St. Petersburg.
Once the trail was unveiled, Reese and Jon Wilson, association vice president, started giving twice monthly trolley tours to anyone interested in learning more about St. Pete’s African-American history. The association’s dedication to the preservation and education of African- American history extended far beyond the trail though.
Reese started the Timbuktu Center for African American Studies in local libraries and other venues, which were seminars open to the public. The association also joined the Community Remembrance Project with the Equal Justice Initiative, which helped memorialize the lynching of John Evans.
Once the pandemic hit, trolley tours of the Heritage Trail and the in-person Timbuktu seminars stopped, but the Heritage Association pivoted and found other ways to engage the community.
It partnered with the Florida Holocaust Museum and Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete to digitize the trail so that those who wanted to learn more about the history could do so from the comfort of their living room. The Heritage Association also partnered with the local bookstore Tombolo Books on monthly Community Conversations over Zoom. Each conversation took on a topic of local relevance about Black history.
And in December 2021, the Heritage Association partnered with the City of St. Petersburg and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg once again for the Gas Plant/Laurel Park Reunion, which took place in the parking lot of Tropicana Field, where the neighborhoods once stood.
Reese said in her welcome to the crowd that the association wants to do much more: work on the second installment of the Heritage Trail, which is set for Methodist Town, and embark on expanding the Heritage Tours from St. Petersburg through the entire state of Florida and key cities in the South like Montgomery, Ala., which would require a federal grant and many active association participants.
However, those and other projects are on hold until the association garners a more robust membership.
“Accessing funds is something we can do, but it’s the manpower that we need,” she said. “Now more than ever, we have to tell our stories. In this political climate and under this governor, there’s an attack on us telling our stories, and we need your help.”
She said that 39 states have passed 160 pieces of legislation that impact how African-American history is taught in schools, and in the wake of the Stop WOKE Act, children’s education is in grave danger. The association’s commitment to the preservation and education of African- American history is needed.
Reese leaned on the words and influence of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, distinguished author and historian who started “Negro History Week,” now known as Black History Month, as she implored members of the crowd to maintain and help grow the support of the association.
“Dr. Woodson once said, ‘I am cautiously hopeful that one day we will not need [Black History Month].” I can say that nearly 100 years after he said that, we need to tell our stories now more than ever.”