Gwen Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, is shown here giving a guided tour of historic 22nd Street.
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The African American Heritage Trail opened in 2014, and since then has provided walking tours along historic the 22nd Street corridor, affectionately called the Deuces, and along Ninth Avenue South.
The guided tours, given by Gwen Reese and Jon Wilson of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg (AAHASP), offer insight into the impactful people and places in the African-American community that contributed to the city’s history.
The Heritage Trail has also embarked on trolley tours, and now the organization is reaching out to the community to begin a new initiative that will engage more residents in providing personal insight into St. Pete’s development along the trail.
The brand-new Community Scholars Program is an opportunity for any and all interested locals to take part in telling the history and sharing the stories of St. Pete’s African-American community.
Reese said the idea for the program was sparked while she and Vickie Oldham of Sarasota’s Newtown Conservation Historic District (NCHD) were on an opening night panel together at the “Beaches, Benches and Boycotts” exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Oldham shared experiences on how NCHD had developed its history trail.
“As we were talking, she told me about a Community Scholars Program she has in Sarasota – and I got so excited because we have been looking for tour guides for almost three years,” shared Reese. “People are intimidated,” she acknowledged when it comes to the idea of conducting the entire 90-minute tour route that the trial covers.
Now, they won’t have to because the brilliance of the Community Scholars Program is that those who sign up will only be responsible for brief presentations along the route, as the “guide” element is shared among many.
“People will get on the trolley with one story,” explained Reese. “So maybe their story is about the Royal Theater, or the Manhattan, or Mercy Hospital. But they only have to feel comfortable telling a piece – a piece that’s their favorite or that they actually lived. They can get on the trolley, talk for three to five minutes, and get back off.”
Now she is excited about building a cadre of people.
“We’re engaging the people and promoting community ownership of the trail,” while teaching the history to the community, noted Reese.
Currently, tours are conducted twice monthly, on the second Wednesday and the fourth Saturday. Community scholars will work with the AAHASP to share the neighborhoods’ stories as a part of the trolley tours.
AAHASP is inviting interested community members to an informational meeting held on Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library to learn more about the Community Scholars Program. The invitation is open to “young, and not so young, St. Petersburg natives and transplants; all are welcome.”
The informational meeting will clarify how the program will work, and people will share ideas on spots along the tour route they might be interested in supplying a story for.
A subsequent meeting will allow participants to review research, and a final meeting will allow them to share the three-to-five-minute presentation they will give on the actual tour in front of the rest of the scholars.
Reese is optimistic about the impact the program will have on the tours, the people who take them, and those who become Community Scholars — pointing to the excitement that is currently brought to the tours when community members share their experiences and memories in the moment.
She believes the Scholar Program will increase that vitality exponentially on the tours.
“Even if you don’t know but one story, if you’re telling that story, you’re keeping our history alive – and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Community Scholars Program Informational Meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4 at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library, 1059 18th Ave. S., St. Petersburg. For more information, call 727-537-0449.
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