St. Pete’s Hidden History: St. Petersburg 50 years ago

Black people were not allowed in downtown St. Petersburg except to go to work. Dr. Ralph Wimbish integrated the downtown Mass Brothers lunch counter in 1961.

BY JON WILSON, Columnist

ST. PETERSBURG — The population of St. Pete was approaching 200,000 after a 1950s housing boom that brought many African Americans to the city for construction jobs. The 1960s census reported the city’s overall population as 181, 298; African Americans comprised about 13 percent of the overall figure, with 24,080 residents.

Still, a few years away from closing, Mercy Hospital added three one-floor wings, bringing the total bed capacity to 78, far short of the community’s needs. The Atlantic Coast Line railroad tracks still ran down First Avenue South, but the last train would leave downtown in June. Many people still followed the tracks to South Mole, the segregated beach for African Americans that in later years became Demens Landing.

Integration continued to take small steps, but schools still were largely segregated. The cafeteria culture remained active, and many African-American men and women worked in several downtown locations.

On June 21 of 1963, black people and white people were making plans to picket St. Petersburg theaters to protest racial discrimination. The Florida and Center theaters – neither now existing – were named as specific targets. The St. Petersburg Youth Council sponsored the demonstrations. Then in September, it was reported in newspapers that the theaters had been “desegregated quietly without a ripple of violence.” Meanwhile, a plan for total desegregation in St. Petersburg was scheduled to be discussed before the Council on Human Relations.

In July, Louis O. Harper, NAACP leader and Gibbs Junior College math teacher, told a mass meeting in St. Petersburg that “St. Petersburg Negroes and others all over the nation who are deprived of their rights must be impatient with the snail’s pace of desegregation.” And hymn-singing youths picketed the Little Club, a white-owned bar on 18th Avenue South just west of 22nd Street that would only serve African Americans through a side window while whites drank inside.

In September, Gibbs Junior College president Dr. John W. Rembert told an assembly of students and teachers that “The Negro is on the threshold of a golden age.” That same month, Gibbs Junior College lowered its flags to half-staff and the St. Petersburg Youth Council sought a church for a memorial after four girls were killed in a Birmingham church bombing. One of the girls, 11-year-old Denise McNair, was the only daughter of a couple who were close friends of junior college instructors Cecil B. Keene and William Motley. The bombing was the 21st in Birmingham going back to December 1956.

That fall, Edgar Wilcox, Reginald Lawrence and Benjamin Mayes were among Gibbs High School football standouts. In December,  staff members of the Gibbs student newspaper, The Student Voice, were announced:  John Bynum editor in chief; Willie Mae Andrews, assistant editor; Gloria Thompson, secretary; Kenneth Graham, sports editor; Dorothy Favors, head typist; Shirley Young, advertisement editor; Olivia Adams, feature editor; and Patricia Ford, head copyreader.

In November, Gibbs National Honor Society members made a trek to Orlando Jones High to watch the Jones NHS induction ceremonies.  Beverly Givens, president of the school’s Pacemakers Chapter, helped organize the trip along with Gloria Riley, librarian and faculty advisor. French students were working on a combined French-English play, Bon Voyage. Otha Favors, who later became Askia Muhammad Aquil, was the Gibbs correspondent for the Evening Independent; he had been a St. Petersburg Times intern during the previous summer.

At Campbell Park Elementary, students put on the play “The Greatest American,” under the direction of Inez Rodriguez and Lottie Ballard. The play’s main characters included Watson Haynes, Lee Lester, Vanetta Parham, Shirley Chambliss and Johnny Davis. It was part of American Education Week, proclaimed by President John F. Kennedy.

Two weeks later, churches throughout the community were holding memorial services for the assassinated president.

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