Dr. Gilbert Leggett and Dr. James Ponder receiving outstanding service awards accompanied by their wives Altaire Leggett and Fannye Ayer Ponder. Photo courtesy of Allyson Leggett Watson.
BY MAXINE MILLER, Neighborhood News Bureau
Dr. Gilbert H. Leggett was a beacon of hope for St. Petersburg.
In 2011, Dr. Leggett was named one of Pinellas County’s most influential five people in the city’s first 100 years by The Tampa Bay Times, alongside George S. Gandy, who built the first bridge to Tampa and W.L. Straub, who led the crusade to split Pinellas off from Hillsborough County.
Reflective and meticulous, with unrelenting determination, “He [Leggett] was a quiet force to be reckoned with,” said his grandson, Gilbert H. “Rickey” Leggett II, in an interview.
Although he was a successful businessman with many accolades over his lifetime, Dr. Leggett never sought notoriety for his achievements. Instead, he sought a better life for his children and his community.
Growing up in Key West, Dr. Leggett learned how to tailor clothing by trade. Using those tailoring skills, he paid for dental school in Nashville, Tenn., before heading down to St. Petersburg in 1926.
Dr. Leggett was known to work on anyone in need of dental services, whether they could afford to pay him or not. When the City of St. Petersburg adopted a formal policy of racial zoning, which remained part of the City Charter from 1931 to 1971, he was pushed out of his highly profitable location on Central Avenue to Ninth Avenue South.
Losing the location meant losing patients, but Dr. Leggett pressed on. His new dental office would prove to be just as vital as his previous one. Dr. Leggett’s attention then turned to his community, becoming a local civil rights advocate and pressing the city for better conditions for its Black residents.
In 1944, he campaigned for the Black vote to be counted in the Democratic primary and won. He also founded the St. Petersburg Non-Partisan Voters League to bring people together.
Dr. Leggett worked to improve his community’s quality of life in a calculated and thoughtful manner, never succumbing to anger or hate. He was inspired by the possibility of change and always had one eye on his community’s children.
He was instrumental in the development of the Melrose Park YMCA. Although opening the facility was an expensive endeavor, Dr. Leggett considered the Y an essential addition to the neighborhood.
“We went every day to learn how to play sports,” recalled Rickey Leggett.
In 2014, the City of St. Petersburg unveiled the African American Heritage Trail in St. Petersburg to honor and preserve the history of the south St. Pete. Notably missing from the trails is any mention of Dr. Leggett.
In the building’s historical designation application from 2019 found on the City of St. Petersburg’s website, it’s written: “Setting is somewhat diminished though still perceptible, especially with the side of historic interpretation such as the African American Heritage Trail, which features a signboard in front of the subject property noting Dr. Leggett’s contributions.
Currently, his former building on Ninth Avenue South has a trail marker for the Ambassadors Club, but there’s no mention of Leggett anywhere.
What about historic landmark designation?
“The designation application for the Leggett Building was approved by the Community Planning and Preservation Commission on Nov. 12, 2019, and by City Council on Dec. 12, 2019,” said Laura Duvekot, a preservationist with the Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division of St. Petersburg in an email.
However, a report on StPete.org says differently.
“The request for Dr. Leggett’s office building to be designated as a landmark was denied in December of 2019. The decision was based on (among other things) the disrepair the building had fallen into, making the historical site’s current appearance too different from the original.”
As for the marker, Rickey Leggett found the oversight to be especially troubling.
“I was told that if I could provide private family photos, an additional sign could be placed for my Granddad,” asserted Rickey Leggett.
Those photos exist but were dispersed among relatives, so they were hard for Rickey Leggett to deliver on short notice. He feels that the small window of opportunity to honor his namesake is gone.
Maxine Miller is a student reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Visit nnbnews.com for more info.