In 2021, history was made at The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club when for the first time in its 43 years of existence, it elected a Black person to the office of president, Rev J.C. Pritchett II.
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club greets visitors to its website with the words: “Welcome to the Tigers’ Den… [serving] …as a civic commons where thought leaders and citizens of all political stripes come together to discuss the pressing issues of our time.”
Up until very recently, however, those issues failed to include the racially fraught history of St. Petersburg. That changed when, in 2019, some of the realities of living in St. Pete as a Black person versus a Caucasian person were discussed during the Tiger Bay lunch meeting “Race & The Legacy of Racism in the ‘Burg.”
It was a historical conversation, the first time in the group’s history that it focused solely on race in the city. Then-president Elise Minkoff promised it would not be the last, noting that the lunch crowd’s attendance for that event was the largest they had that year.
In 2021, history was made again at the club, when for the first time in its 43 years of existence, it elected a Black person to the office of president. Rev J.C. Pritchett II, pastor of St. Pete’s Faith Church, took the helm after being selected last December and sees his election as yet another sign of St Pete’s changing conversations on equity in the city.
While he is a pastor, as a native of the Childs Park area, Pritchett has an even longer history as a community activist and political force. His relationship with Tiger Bay dates back to 1991 when at the age of 21, Pritchett served as campaign manager for city council candidate Charles Shorter, who was the young activist’s professor at St. Petersburg College.
Later, Pritchett also gained experience under Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles, of whom Pritchett noted, “I learned a lot from her. She was so fair, so respected; we have an award named after her at Tiger Bay.”
For Pritchett, Tiger Bay symbolizes “a seat at the table.”
“Tiger Bay is where you gather to discuss politics. And politics is not a dirty word; it’s a good word,” he noted. “It means, how are we going to live in a community in a society together? How are we gonna make decisions and have [better] policies and legislation?”
The organization’s new president is also completely clear on the history of the organization and the reasons Black membership – and leadership – is critical to its future.
“There hasn’t been an African-American president [at Tiger Bay] because it has been a place of power and prestige that met at the Yacht Club on the water. Because the history of this country, the history of this state, the history of this city is one of segregation, and benefitting off the back of enslaved people.”
Tiger Bay, he added, has been a place where public servants met with the business community and the academic community, heard speakers, and made important decisions “in fellowship.”
As president, Pritchett was forceful in his assertion that “if African Americans are going to change the conditions of our people, we need to be at the table. I’ve always believed in being at the table, where decisions have been made and where information has been shared — whether that’s a yacht club, on a golf course, or at happy hour.”
As a long-time member, Pritchett served as a board member and treasurer before being elected president. Today, he mused, “The boy from Childs Park who used to sell the Evening Independent in front of a yacht club is now the president of Tiger Bay.”
Pritchett estimates that Tiger Bay’s Black membership currently hovers around 8-10 percent of the membership and believes the numbers should be higher. At $100 a year, he said, the membership is worth it, for the access to information and potential partners and allies that can be gained.
“The access to other thinkers and dreamers and movers and shakers, and your elected officials is worth it,” he asserted.
Still, he said, “the reality is that we know that some African Americans were not comfortable going to the Yacht Club because of what it represented. There was a time when African Americans and Jews and women were not welcome at the Yacht Club and many other spaces of privilege in the South.”
While he acknowledged that there would be meetings at the Yacht Club in the future, the sessions will move around the county since the chapter is the Suncoast chapter and represents all of Pinellas.
And in fact, the first event under Pritchett’s leadership is the upcoming State of the Bay Annual Mayoral Forum, and it will be held at the James Museum; the event is already sold out.
Pritchett noted that it would be the first mayoral forum to bring together a member of the LGBTQ+ community and an African American in the roles of mayor, with St. Petersburg’s Mayor Ken Welch and Tampa’s Mayor Jane Castor. (Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard’s schedule precluded him from attending this year.)
Pritchett believes that African Americans are deeply invested in many of the critical issues that will be up for discussion during Tiger Bay sessions, including transportation issues, Tropicana Field redevelopment, crime, environmental issues, and education.
And in fact, said the new president, another conversational first has already been scheduled, which will bring together leaders of several major higher education institutions to discuss increasing enrollment, recruitment, lagging equity in education, and diversity in staffing.
For more information on joining Suncoast Tiger Bay, visit tigerbay.org.