Hidden History: Ambassadors Club

BY JON WILSON, Columnist

In its day, the Ambassadors Club was among St. Petersburg’s most influential groups in terms of civil rights advocacy and community leadership. Comprising many of the city’s most prominent African American men, the Ambassadors also provided milk and lunches for school children, organized fundraisers to benefit the community and cracked a segregation barrier when they placed a float in the annual Festival of States Parade.

The club disbanded in 2004 after its golden anniversary celebration. But Mordecai Walker, one of the few surviving members, recalled last week that 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the Ambassadors’ founding. He is proud of the club’s history and believes it and its mission still could have a future in the community.

“I’m just as enthused about it now as I ever was,” said Walker, who is 89. “We did some good things. And we would have good things to do today.”

Dr. Ralph M. Wimbish founded the club on March 4, 1953, but the group uses 1954 as a starting point to date its anniversaries. “We were one year old before we had our first public program,” Walker said.

On that occasion, the Ambassadors named Jennie Hall the club’s citizen of the year. A white woman, Hall had donated money to build Wildwood swimming pool. Previously, black people could swim at only the South Mole beach (where today’s Demens Landing is). The pool is still in use at the Wildwood Community Center.

A 1954 newspaper photo showed Hall posing with Ernest Fillyau, at the time a young lifeguard who later became an Ambassadors Club member and a St. Petersburg City Councilman.

One of the club’s earliest triumphs was placing a float in the 1954 Festival of States Parade. While not totally segregated because bands from black school marched, no African American entry on the level of the float had been permitted. It costed about $500 and was constructed by a company headquartered on Weedon Island. The float carried six young women, including the 16-year-old queen, Rosa Holmes, who was crowned at a coronation ball during festival week. In later years, Holmes said the float was warmly received all along the parade route by blacks and whites alike.

Among the club’s earliest members were Dr. Orion Ayer Sr., Dr. Robert J. Swain, Dr. Fred Alsup, Samuel Blossom, Sidney Campbell, George Grogan, John Hopkins, Ernest Ponder, John Rembert and Emanuel Stewart. All have passed on. Walker, an educator, did not become a member until 1958.

It was Stewart who coined the Ambassadors Club name. A former Gibbs High School principal and later administrative services director for the Pinellas County school system, Stewart is the only African American to be named Mr. Sun, an honor bestowed upon a prominent St. Petersburg man every year during festival week. Because of his distinguished gray hair, Stewart was nicknamed “Silver Streak” when an Ambassadors team played the Gibbs varsity basketball team in an exhibition game. Husky Henry Jones was known as “Full Press” and Walker, because of the way he moved on court, drew the moniker of “Crazy Legs.”

If the club were active today, Walker said it would focus on teenage boys, working especially toward higher rates of literacy and closing the achievement gap in Pinellas schools.

Meanwhile, Walker retains a sparkle in his eyes and a good helping of the energy that served him through five terms as Ambassadors president.

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