St. Pete’s Hidden History: St. Petersburg 100 years ago

Pepper Town was one of the first Black neighborhoods in St. Pete. Historians say the enclave was named for the abundance and variety of peppers grown in gardens and pots. Photo circa 1930

BY JON WILSON, Columnist

St. Petersburg’s population was hovering around 5,500 that year. The 1910 census reported 4,127 people, including 1,098 African Americans, or about 27 percent of the total population. By 1913, the new city was experiencing a real estate boomlet that brought new residents and created a few new jobs. Black laborers worked on a new section of trolley line being extended west all the way to the Jungle area near Boca Ciega Bay.

Late 19th-century pioneers, both black and white, have reported that racial friction was rare or non-existent before St. Petersburg began to find its place on the map when the Orange Belt Railway arrived in 1888. Even for some time afterward, when African-American workers settled what became known as Pepper Town, segregation seemed not to be strictly enforced.

But by 1913, separation of the races was apparent, even in the listings of city directories, which purported to note every resident, with his or her address and occupation.

The 1908 directory lists African-American residents although each is specially denoted with an asterisk.

For example, Elder Jordan Sr., who became a locally renowned black entrepreneur, was recorded as living at 976 2nd Ave. S. with his wife Mary. His occupation was listed as a farmer. Elder Jordan Jr., listed as a mechanic, lived nearby at 918 Second Ave. S.

Lilla Brayboy, whose surname is widely recognized today, lived at 477 10th St. S. By 1912-13, none of them was listed at all, nor were any other black residents, even as they comprised more than a quarter of the city’s population. This was by design. City leaders did not care to make it known that St. Petersburg had a large African-American population because they wanted to attract affluent white people from the North.

Most black people lived in Pepper Town, Methodist Town, and a section called Cooper’s Quarters, which eventually become known as the Gas Plant neighborhood. A few people lived farther west in what was essentially country. The 22nd Street South neighborhood would not begin developing in earnest for another decade.

Many early African-American residents provided the muscle and hands-on labor that built houses and roads, dug sewers, paved roads, and made sure dozens of other tasks were performed.

Wrote historian Raymond O. Arsenault: “Without the blood, sweat and tears expended by people of color, St. Petersburg would not have been the up-and-coming city local whites praised so loudly.”

The year 1913 was also the era of whites-only Democratic primary elections. Newspapers reported that many St. Petersburg African Americans paid their poll taxes and otherwise did what was needed to vote, but were blocked by the Democrats and kept under close watch by white groups with such names as the “Good Government League.” According to a June 24, 1913 article in The Miami News, a citizens group was offering up to $1,500 in prize money to people who could provide “information about what is backing the Negroes.” And the same day, the Evening Independent in St. Petersburg reported rumors that a special detective was in town to keep an eye on black voters.

Fifty years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, such were the 1913 separatist seeds that brought about a long era of what was frequently brutal racial oppression.  In 1915, the second Ku Klux Klan began organizing and the Sunshine City eventually boasted the second-largest klavern in Florida.  And in 1914, the city experienced one of the most horrific episodes in its history: the lynching of a black man suspected of murdering a white man and assaulting his wife.

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